How I Looked Beyond the Stars

By Gareth Hawkes

I dedicated four years of a mathematics PhD to studying the distant (1.5×10^8m away to be precise) mass we refer to as ‘The Sun’, desperately trying to make or simulate complicated measurements that my peers wouldn’t instantly disbelieve. Nevertheless, I felt an urge to study a subject somewhat closer to my home. Maybe one that might have an impact on my own environment, where I live and thrive, my family, or even the local shopkeeper’s. Basically anything where I didn’t have to show patience for the next ten billion years to see an effect.

The most rewarding part of my PhD was inarguably the data science, the game of cat and mouse between finding a real signal that is not weighed down by the white noise. This concept seemed to be a core virtue of the genomics world, and I found myself becoming more and more interested in what a genome really was, and, believe me, 3 billion basepairs seem a lot less intimidating when you’ve been studying a star.

And so, in August 2020, while the world was groaning under the ever so present pandemic, I found my true ray of light when I got selected to join the Complex Traits team at the University of Exeter, working under Prof Tim Frayling on the Europe-wide project called SOPHIA. I was keen to decipher the enigma that SOPHIA was to me, and was quickly brought up to speed thanks to the unrelenting helpfulness of my colleagues and the breadth of resources available to me (despite not having studied biology beyond Secondary School!). The genetics world is rich in data science, and this is where I found that, with my background in mathematics, I could immediately thrive.

6 months later I can begin to call myself a peer. I have become aware of what a brilliant time it is to be a researcher in genetics, and especially one studying the complex beast that is diabetes. The UK biobank started to release its coveted exome data, and late last year the Prime Minister of the UK has made obesity (a well-established precursor to diabetes) an NHS priority, resulting in an increased funding availability. These UK examples are significant, and shed light on the potential that SOPHIA holds. I am thus expecting great things, and I hope that my tiny contribution can make a difference here. Maybe the red thread in my research career is that I like to reach for the stars but for sure, this goal is much more tangible in a project like SOPHIA.