Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Meet Ruth Timme, GenBank Biologist

Ruth is a long-time New Voice and was kind enough to tell us about her work in a phone interview.

New Voices (NV): What do you do in your work?

Ruth: I work through a contractor for GenBank (National Center for Biotechnology Information, NCBI), a large DNA sequence database that stores and organizes data from scientists around the world. When scientists sequence a genome, they have to deposit it in a public database, so NCBI curates the data and helps in the submission process.

NV: Why is your work important, in particular to the public?

Ruth: It’s a completely “public” job; NCBI is funded by the NIH, so it’s taxpayer dollars. When the government pays to have research performed, GenBank allows the data that comes out of it to be publically available. GenBank is analogous to the Library of Congress or the Smithsonian, except DNA sequence information is entirely digital.

NV: What might the public misunderstand or misinterpret about your work?

Ruth: If anything, they don’t even know this service exists. They might imagine a computer taking in all these data, but there’s actually a team of highly trained people who go through the data with a fine-tooth comb and verify it.

NV: Are there any policy issues affecting your work?

Ruth: We’re watching the budget pretty closely because the NIH is always brought up in the discussion. It’s really important that [the government] continue to fund both research and the efforts to make it public. You can’t publically fund research and then not publish what comes out of it.

NV: How did you become interested in policy and in working with Research!America as a New Voice?

Ruth: I’ve always been a politics wonk and I follow Congress, so I naturally became interested in the policy that affects science. I like to keep my toes in the water.

NV: What would your advice be for the scientists not interested or involved in policy?

It’s really important to be interested and involved, but it does take a lot of work. Many scientists aren’t rewarded by their academic departments for their work in policy, and they have to do it on their own time. We need to change the system; it’s a tough problem.

This is part of the ongoing Profiling New Voices series.

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