The Computer Scientist

Chris Ponting studies genes. With the help of a computer, he links genetic information with disease.

I study the evolution and function of genes. My group contributed to the Human Genome Project – the mapping and identification of the entire set of human genes. We look at how genes have changed over time, including those of parasites, so we can learn about genetic and infectious diseases.

I spend my days in a new building within a university science area at a computer, struggling to make head-or-tail of the enormous amount of genetic information that is pouring into databases. I also answer numerous administration emails, or questions from students, or letters from other academics. Around me in the office are stacks of paper (I was never good at filing), symbols on whiteboards and coffee mug stains on desktops.

One of my jobs is to describe accurately and concisely the methods we’ve used and the results we’ve achieved and to submit manuscripts to be considered for scientific journals. As scientists, if we do not publish, we won’t survive – we will fail to attract the funding that is required to perform our research. It’s a great day when a journal says “Yes, we will publish one of your papers”!

Every day, I talk to the students and post-doctoral researchers in my lab about what they’re doing, what they should plan to do, and what appears to be going wrong, or right. It’s a special day when someone with whom you’re working comes up to you, with shining eyes, to tell you of a latest finding. One that you hope no-one else in the world has stumbled across yet.

‘If we do not publish we won’t survive.’

Once in a while, we unearth a nugget of information that tells us something new about human disease. We know that this, in itself, will not immediately help those suffering from health problems. Instead, this information, once published, provides someone else with a missing piece in their own research puzzle which – when complete – leads to improved diagnoses, drugs or therapy.

A good result will immediately pose more questions that we can then try to answer. I’m not interested in results that lead nowhere. Answering an intriguing question allows us to branch off in new directions; somewhere we haven’t ventured previously.

Chris Ponting, professor of bioinformatics, MRC Functional Genetics Unit, Oxford.

To contact Chris, or any of the other scientists featured here, please email

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