The big data of small things – Sujai Kumar joins Real Scientists!

panamaWe’re excited to welcome Sujai Kumar (@sujaik), lepidoptera bioinformatician at University of Edinburgh, to Real Scientists! Sujai currently identifies as a genome informatician, and works on lepbase.org (a database and platform for butterfly and moth genomics). He has worked on nematode, tardigrade, yeast and butterfly genomes in the past 10 years. In his previous lives (in a career sense, not in a Hindu/Buddhist sense), he taught mathematics and studied educational psychology (how children learn in informal and formal learning environments), and also worked as a web designer and illustrator. We asked Sujai our usual set of questions about his work and what he does besides work, and you can read his responses below.

I always enjoyed science in high school and as an undergrad (in Information Systems). While in college, I had an opportunity to illustrate a Mathematics textbook for middle schoolers, and became fascinated by how children learn in formal and informal environments. After a brief detour through the social sciences (Educational Psychology) I ended up interested in Complex Systems and emergent phenomena, and decided to do a Masters in Informatics. While doing the masters, I came across the field of evolutionary genomics and some great opportunities for research I’ve been hooked ever since.

I happened upon it by chance. During the Masters in Informatics, I was taking courses in neuroinformatics, robotics, and bioinformatics. One of my lectures on sequencing informatics blew my mind, and I decided to do my masters project in that field. I ended up working for a year as a bioinformatician for the university’s sequencing service, and then did a PhD in bioinformatics/evolutionary genomics. What keeps me here is that there is SO much to learn, and so much data being generated, and not enough people to look at it. It’s also an exciting field because there are new algorithms and new technologies being developed all the time.

Currently, I work on lepbase.org – a genome database for Lepidoptera (butterflies and moths). It’s more of a bioinformatics infrastructure project – we support biologists and bioinformaticians who are trying to learn more about how these amazing creatures fly, eat, smell, navigate, and evolve. Genomics is the process of understanding what a genome (the sum total of all the DNA in an organism) does. We now have the technology to sequence any organism. Humans were first fully sequenced over 15 years ago, but most species haven’t been sequenced. If we use the analogy of a genome as being the ‘book of life’ (not an original analogy), all we know for the species that have been sequenced (including humans) are the letters in the book, and some of the words spelt out by the letters. We don’t even understand most of the sentences.

I like to think of genomics as the process of correlating the letters and the words in the book of life to real events, to try to figure out what the sentences mean.

It’s not an obligation, but we are encouraged to do science outreach activities at Edinburgh University. I’ve really enjoyed creating games to explain DNA concepts at the University’s Doors Open Days, and at local Science Festivals.

In my free time, I sing in a community choir. Thanks to the tardigrade research I’ve been doing, I came across The Tardigrade Song by Cosmo Sheldrake, so we’re singing that in our Christmas Concert on December 7th!

On my ideal day off, I’d love to do some subset of playing board games with friends, walking around the city (Edinburgh is terrific for that), treating myself to an excellent coffee (I get palpitations if I have too much coffee, so I like my coffee to be really good when I do indulge), cooking with friends, or reading a book in the sun. If I had to do ALL of these things, I imagine that would be a bit much and I’d need another day off to recover.

Please welcome Sujai to Real Scientists!

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