Q&A with Julian Rayner, Director, Connecting Science

Date: 5 December 2016

Dr Julian Rayner reflects on the impact of genomic research and combining malaria research with leading a learning and engagement programme.

Photo of Julian Rayner, Director of Connecting ScienceJulian RaynerDr Julian Rayner reflects on the impact of genomic research, engaging with both professionals and the public, and combining malaria research with leading a learning and engagement programme.

Q. As Connecting Science is still a relatively new initiative, could you tell us a little more about its history and its future ambitions?

A. Connecting Science is a new name, but our teams have a long history of outstanding work. Connecting Science encompasses the Conference Centre, Advanced Courses and Scientific and Conferences, Public Engagement, and Society and Ethics Research teams, all of which create and manage events, locations and opportunities for Campus researchers to interact with the world. Our shared mission is to enable everyone to explore genomic science and its impact on research, health and society. The combination and intersection of experience across the teams makes Connecting Science a unique programme, with a bold ambition – to open up the Wellcome Genome Campus to public and professional audiences alike.

Q. Connecting Science is focussed around genomic science. Why do you feel this area is so important?

A. Genomics is revolutionising biological research but is also a deeply personal science, relevant to us all. Every living organism on the planet has a genome, and the history of life on earth, as well our individual health, is to written in this relatively simple four letter code. The knowledge that has already been unleashed from genomic research is immense, but there is so much more that will be learnt in the coming years. I believe that everyone needs to be able to contribute to this process, from those undertaking research or using genomics in their clinics, to members of the public who now and in the future will be experiencing genomics as part of their healthcare, or using it to learn more about their place in the world. Connecting Science creates spaces and opportunities for researchers, health professionals and the wider public to explore the impact of genomics on us all.

Q. Connecting Science works with both researchers and the public. Why should these groups be interested in your work?

A. The Wellcome Genome Campus is at the absolute cutting edge of research in genomes and biodata. Enabling scientists on Campus to share knowledge with researchers and healthcare professionals from around the world is a key part of what we do, and the Conference Centre and the Scientific Conferences which are held there provide an important platform for the exchange of knowledge, while our residential Advanced Courses allow scientists to learn new tools and technologies. However, we are aware that not all researchers can access these opportunities easily. That’s why we hold Advanced Courses across the globe in low- and middle-income countries, to address this skills gap and help democratise access to genomic tools.

Those not directly involved in research also have a critical part of play in the world of 21st century genomics. As genomics becomes more common place, the public should have a voice in deciding how the information generated is shared and applied. Our Public Engagement activities seek to put genomics in context and broaden understanding of this new area of science, but also very importantly enable discussion and dialogue between scientists and public audiences, allowing the voices, hopes and fears of these groups to be heard. The work of the new Society and Ethics Research team takes this one step further, using an evidence-based approach to capture and analyse people’s attitudes to genomics, in order to influence both policy and practice. We want the Campus to become a touchstone for everyone seeking to understand genomics, or contribute to the discussion around it.

Q. As well as leading Connecting Science, you’re also an active malaria researcher. Are there any synergies or resonances between these two areas?

Credit: Hugh Sturrock, Wellcome ImagesCredit: Hugh Sturrock, Wellcome ImagesI can’t imagine leading Connecting Science without being an active researcher. As a scientist, I’m inspired pretty much every day by the research that is happening across the Campus and I have a passion to enable everyone to experience that same inspiration and sense of wonder that I feel. My focus on malaria is, I think, also very relevant to our goals. In the coming decades, matters relating to genomics and biodata will affect everyone on the planet. Through my research I have the privilege of visiting some pretty out of the way places, and the feeling that the work we do on Campus can touch places such as the remote town on the Pacific Coast of Colombia that I visited a couple of months ago, inaccessible by road and with severe health inequality, is a sobering and important fact to remember. It has always been a part of Wellcome’s remit to consider such locations in their work, and I think it is important for the Campus and Connecting Science to do the same.

Q. What might a typical day look like for you?

Is there a typical day? Usually too many meetings and too much e-mail, but also usually inspirational discussions with people in my lab about their latest results, or with members of Public Engagement about their contribution to a recent science festival, or Advanced Courses and Scientific Conferences about a new course or conference idea, or news from Society and Ethics Research about data from their most recent research project. I wander around the Conference Centre pretty much every day too to look at the glass roof, phylogenetic trees and Cultural Zone – still can’t quite believe how wonderful the outcome of that massive renovation project was.

Q. Where do you hope to see Connecting Science in ten years time?

I want the world to think of the Campus and genomics in the same way that the world thinks about CERN and the Higgs Boson. We should be the place people come to for inspiration, information and contribution, regardless of whether they are a scientist or member of the public. I want the quality of the facilities and programmes we have for inspiring the world to match the facilities and programmes we have for scientific research, and I want absolutely everyone to feel welcome and included.