Dr. Sarah Pendergrass

Bioinformatics is not just an academic buzzword: pharmaceutical, biotechnology, and healthcare companies are quickly realizing the importance of applying computational tools to glean meaning from large biological datasets. In addition to the Huck Institute’s Bioinformatics and Genomics program, scientists in other programs are discovering how bioinformatics can help their own research. Some students who currently work in wet labs may be curious about pursuing careers in bioinformatics following graduation. However, the transition from the bench to the computer screen may seem just as daunting as the transition from academia to industry. Dr. Sarah Pendergrass, a bioinformatician in Geisinger Health System, provided insights on pursuing careers in bioinformatics in the private sector when she visited Penn State in September, as part of a visit was hosted by HGSAC. Afterward, HGSAC interviewed her about her career path and advice for current students.

Dr. Pendergrass is an Investigator I in the Biomedical and Translational Informatics Program at Geisinger Health System, working as a genetic bioinformatician. Her work focuses on high-throughput data analysis and data-mining projects for uncovering the genetic architecture of complex human diseases and traits. This includes coupling genotypic data with de-identified electronic health record data, population survey based data, clinical study data, and pharmacological study data. She is interested in incorporating environmental exposure data in analyses of disease susceptibility and analyses across ancestry. She has extensive experience developing novel methodologies and performing high-throughput analyses for discovery, such as those for Phenome-Wide Association Studies (PheWAS), which work to identify cross-phenotype associations and pleiotropy.

During her PhD at Dartmouth College, she worked on gene expression analyses and bioinformatics, with projects leveraging the complexity of gene-expression data for biomarker and biological discovery for the disease systemic sclerosis. She is a former staff scientist of Dr. Marylyn Ritchie where she did GWAS studies and computational biology. Her master’s degree in biomedical engineering and bachelor’s degree in physics have provided her with additional technical and analytical expertise for complex data-driven projects. Dr. Pendergrass also has extensive experience with developing software tools aimed at analyzing and visualizing complex data including PhenoGram, PhenoGram-Genie, Synthesis View, and PheWAS-View.

What’s your educational background? Is there anything specific that prepared you for your current career?

If I can suggest anything: diversify. Explore projects you find interesting, and follow data that you are excited about. I have had a varied career, with a bachelors in physics, masters in biomedical engineering, PhD in genetics, and a postdoc in human genetics. While challenging to have shifted around, all of the projects ultimately have been complementary and important contributors to later projects, even if I did not realize it at the time.

What are your current roles and responsibilities? How have these changed over time?

I am starting a lab in a new program, with new data, and some very new collaborations. This is very different from when I was a staff scientist, when I had many “known projects” ongoing. Right now I wear many hats and am trying to learn as much as I can in all those roles to help get the lab off the ground.

Was this career path something you had always considered?

I think I knew as a kid I wanted to be a scientist, but I only knew about park rangers and later, biologists. So I assumed those were my two career choices given my interests, until college when I realized there were so many things I could do with an interest in science.

What skills have made you and others in your field successful?

Creativity, flexibility, curiosity, a sense of adventure, asking questions no one else thinks to ask

Were there any unexpected skills that you needed to learn?

How to handle competitive and unkind behavior from fellow scientists

What’s the most challenging part of your career?

Keeping up. And having a life balance while keeping up. This is a daily struggle.

How do you think your career will change in both the near and distant future?

Things are changing so fast at present. You should probably ask me in a year about what happened and my projections for the future.

What can young scientists do to prepare for careers in genetics and bioinformatics? Any tips on specific ways to network in the field?

Take courses in –omic data that interest you, particularly if they have “hands on” components. If you can’t find those courses specifically in your graduate program, take courses at places like Cold Spring Harbor.

Identify authors of papers you find interesting, and try to find ways to talk with them, or if you can’t reach those authors somehow, talk to the graduate students that worked on those papers. Also, if you can’t network through your mentor, see if your thesis committee members have networking connections to help you reach out to scientists outside of Penn State. Find researchers at Penn State you think are doing interesting work, and try to set up a time to talk with them and ask them how they got to where they are. These are all ways to build relationships and networking that carry forward.

If you weren’t at Geisinger, where do you think or where would you like to be?

Nowhere else I would like to be right now career wise. Unless you mean on a vacation, then if so, I would like to be backpacking in Patagonia.

How easy/difficult is it to balance work and personal/family life in your career as a genetic bioinformatician at Geisinger?

It is very hard to balance work and personal/family life as a scientist “climbing the ranks”. But I do what I can.

What advice do you have, about anything, for current graduate students?

The same thing I noted at the beginning. Don’t decide that your current PhD or what you study, or what your academic path has been, defines your future science. Diversify. Explore projects you find interesting, and follow data that you are excited about. Explore possibilities. It is tough spending plenty of time out of your comfort zone, but as one poster said “that is where the magic happens”.

Also, find your mentors. Find experienced scientists you trust, with a range of viewpoints. And then remember to reach out to them with questions. I used to think I was supposed to behave like I “knew it all”. And then I saw that some of the most successful scientists I know are successful in part because they always talk about things with their mentors and get great advice. In the end each person has to decide what works for them, but the expert advice can sometimes be just the right information at just the right time.

And for goodness sake, GO OUTSIDE once and a while (if you are not an ecologist) and remember there is also good life outside of graduate school and chasing after manuscripts. Stand on top of a mountain and have some fresh air. Sometimes that is the perspective you need, to not get too tied up in things that ultimately are not the most important things.

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