Irene Blat of genomics research company Genuity Science is smiling into the camera against a grey background.
Irene Blat. Image: Genuity Science

The role of a data-analytics director in genomic discovery

16 Nov 2020

Irene Blat, a senior director at Genuity Science, discusses how the intersection of data, engineering, genetics and more will be crucial to the future of healthcare.

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The future of healthcare will need the right mix of skills and cross-disciplinary collaboration. Irene Blat, senior director of data products and analytics at Genuity Science, is particularly familiar with that. Throughout her career, she has worked with clinicians, geneticists, software engineers and more to drive progress in genomics.

Here, she discusses her passion for problem solving and why mentors have been crucial to her journey.

‘One of the biggest surprises has been realising the value of collaborative teamwork in tackling these different spaces’

What first stirred your interest in a career in genomics?

I have had a passion for life sciences since my early years. I loved experimenting in science class and being able to test, learn and improve. What really solidified my path into life sciences was an undergraduate experience I had working in an immunology lab. We would modify genetic sequences to better understand how immune cells were able to adapt their responses depending on the invaders they were fighting.

The way we measured the response was by looking at thousands of cells with a laser to see how the markers they expressed on their surface had changed based on the genetic changes to their sequence. This generated a lot of data that we then had to analyse.

One of the best aspects of experimenting was recording the data and then looking for and identifying patterns. The thrill of gaining insights into one more piece of the puzzle was what really drove me to continue my career in exploring genetics to better understand and potentially treat diseases.

What experiences led you to the role you now have?

My interest in genetics was what led me to my first job working at the Broad Institute in Cambridge, Massachusetts. At the time, it was an early data revolution in the life sciences where the human genome had just been sequenced a few years earlier and we were learning a wealth of information about healthy and disease states.

My role was to generate thousands of gene expression profiles of cells that had been treated with different drugs and then look for patterns in the cells’ responses to the drugs. We were looking for ways to link these genetic patterns to diseases to match them to a potential therapeutic compound. Here, I learned that the human cell is a very complex system and requires combing through lots of data to better understand how all the subtle changes in a cell work together to produce altered states.

Working with these large datasets put me on a path to look for opportunities where I could leverage the power of data to better understand complex biological systems.

What were the biggest surprises or challenges you encountered on your career path and how did you deal with them?

For me, my career path has not been linear. I have taken risks and explored new opportunities to expand my experience where I could be impactful. Since joining Genuity, I have been fortunate to contribute to the R&D, product management and commercial aspects of the business with, at times, steep learning curves that have taken me out of my comfort zone.

What I have learned about myself is that I enjoy the challenge of learning something new and being able to leverage previous experiences to bring an original perspective to the company needs. While the subject matter might change, the concepts and learnings are still applicable across the organisation.

One of the biggest surprises has been realising the value of collaborative teamwork in tackling these different spaces. In graduate school, my work was focused on a very specific topic and in my career I’ve been hired into very specific roles. But what has enabled me to move between different fields has really been collaborating and learning from other people.

I’ve learned not to be afraid to ask questions and really take the opportunity to learn from others in the field. Then I have to take time to synthesise all these learnings to put forward a hypothesis that I can share with my colleagues for feedback and input. Basically, it’s a team effort and the more diverse the team the better the ideas.

Was there any one person who was particularly influential as your career developed?

I have had the good fortune of having many outstanding mentors throughout my career who see potential in me through my work ethic and dedication. I am grateful for having mentors who have encouraged me to take on bigger risks by giving me their vote of confidence. In particular, I have had strong female mentors who are excellent leaders and have leaned in throughout their careers.

Being able to learn from their experiences and listening to their guidance has been valuable in helping me decide where to go next in my career. The best mentors are the ones that give the gift of their time and my career has been shaped by the time of several great mentors in my life.

What do you enjoy about your job?

I really enjoy problem solving. In this role, I spend a lot of time thinking of creative ways to solve new problems. I also enjoy working through these problems in collaboration with our talented team. I have a deep appreciation for the value of sharing ideas and approaches with others from different backgrounds.

At Genuity Science, I have worked in teams with clinicians, geneticists, software engineers, bioinformaticians and data scientists who each bring their own expertise to the table. These types of cross-functional teams enable problem solving in a way that would not be possible if we all worked in silos.

What is even more exciting is that our team grows when we engage in collaborations with our customers. Our customers bring strong experiences in drug development that nicely complement our internal expertise in genomics discovery to help advance new therapies to the clinic. There are so many people to learn from both internal and external to our organisation and that’s what makes my job exciting – I’m always learning!

What aspects of your personality do you feel make you suited to this job?

I am a passionate learner. As I look back on how I landed at Genuity Science, the common thread is that every role I have had provided me the opportunity to learn. In this role, we are working at the cutting edge of how to analyse large clinical and genomic datasets. We have to iterate and adapt our analytical tools to solve increasingly complex biological problems.

My flexibility in adapting with the needs of the problem has also helped me in looking at problems in different ways. Since my early days in the lab, I recognised I had a lot of perseverance and grit. Sometimes you have to try multiple approaches before you find a path forward, but it is incredibly rewarding when you gain a new insight into a problem that was unsolved. That’s what keeps me motivated to continue trying.

How did Genuity Science support you on your career path?

At Genuity Science, the leadership team has encouraged me to explore the commercial boundaries which are well outside my original scientific training. Being able to inform commercial engagements with my deep scientific understanding has significantly broadened my skillset and resulted in exciting partnerships for the company.

Genuity has supported me in attending trainings and conferences where I was able to learn more about the commercial space as well as gain the opportunity to observe others in action. This has been a great development opportunity for me.

What advice would you give to those considering a career in data and genomics, or just starting out in one?

If you enjoy a challenge and like to learn, then a career in data analytics will not disappoint you. You have to be willing to take risks and fail but also learn from the failures and apply the lessons to the next challenge. The greatest reward is seeing how this work can ultimately have an impact on patient lives.

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