Sharing experiences for future ELIXIR internships: An interview with Marta Ferri, Beacon Intern at CRG (ELIXIR-ES)

Marta Ferri PeradaltaMarta Ferri Peradalta completed her BSc in Biomedical Sciences at the University of Barcelona and followed her passion for Bioinformatics with an MSc at the Pompeu Fabra University in Barcelona. Immediately after her postgraduate studies, she was granted with an internship at the Centre for Genomic Regulation (CRG), located at the heart of one of the most advanced research centres in Europe —the Barcelona Biomedical Research Park. She has been completing her internship as part of the ELIXIR Beacon Project, a worldwide initiative to break the barriers of genomics and health data sharing.

Q: Can you tell us a bit about your background and your interest in joining the CRG as an intern?

I studied Biomedical Sciences at the University of Barcelona and after finishing the BSc I moved to the Bioinformatics field by completing an MSc at the Pompeu Fabra University. Right after I finished my postgraduate studies, I was lucky to find the Beacon Internship opportunity at the CRG. I did not want to set aside my scientific interest in the pursuit of a career in web development. When I found this internship, I thought it was perfect for achieving the right balance and obtaining the best of both worlds.

Q: How did you find out about the offer?

I was still finishing my masters when a classmate disseminated the information. I believe it was Professor Arcadi Navarro, at the CRG, who shared the offer while delivering a lecture at the university. The offer went through different Whatsapp groups before I received it. I didn't hesitate to apply.

Q: How was the application process?

>I contacted Arcadi, and he pointed me to Jordi Rambla, who coordinates the Beacon Project at the CRG. I had a meeting with him, a very relaxed chat. After this chat with Jordi, we had, let's say, a more technical interview with other ELIXIR partners. Altogether, it was a very smooth process. I can compare it with other selection procedures at other institutions, and this was far from an impersonal and unpleasant experience. 

Q: The CRG is located in one of the most advanced research centres in Europe. What was your first impression of the facilities?

Indeed, one of the reasons why I did not hesitate about taking the internship was that  I knew the CRG was one of the reference centres for bioinformatics. I was not disappointed when I first saw not only the infrastructure but the human resources —the helping and caring towards employees is exceptional.

Q: In which projects have you been involved during your internship?

I have primarily been working on the Beacon Project, though in many different processes and aspects of it. I devote all my time to this initiative that seeks to break the barriers and fear of sharing human data. 

I started moving from Java to Python, and in general, working on several new features of Beacon. Other than this, I have also been involved in the interviews with hospitals to find out about the end-users’ needs when it comes to sharing sensitive human data. This was probably one of the most useful processes because I was able to discuss, understand and gather the requests first hand. It has also given me a lot of motivation to continue developing Beacon.

Q: Did you feel you had sufficient hands-on-experience during your time at the CRG to further develop your skills?

Throughout the entire internship, I felt trusted to work by myself. I was not alone, though. I had the pleasure to work alongside two senior developers as my mentors, but I felt I could make mistakes and, at the same time, find the solutions —I felt free to confront challenges. This has certainly been not just shadowing.

I’ve been treated as another team member, though with the help of my mentors or, as we call them in the office, my “Jedi” masters.

For example, we went to Japan to meet Toshiaki Katayama [associate professor at  Kyoto University], who would bring the message of the Beacon to his colleagues. I helped to create and deliver a workshop to explain our project, where I had a lot of freedom talking about the Beacon itself and the implementation strategies.

Q: What was the best experience you had to develop your skills?

The trip to Japan was certainly ‘the icing in the cake’ because I could combine the challenge of getting out of my comfort zone and the challenge of conveying a complex message, with the added factor of a different culture. I never expected to go to Japan, this was a successful unplanned project that turned out to be a great experience.

And not just Japan, I was in Paris in November last year, participating in the BioHackathon. I was for 5 days working together with other bioinformaticians in small teams to achieve a common goal. It was a great experience from both the interpersonal and the technical side.

Every experience has helped me develop my communications skills. Looking back, I discussed the structure and complexity of the Beacon Project with two entirely different audiences: one that understood the problems and challenges of sharing data at a technical level, and another one to whom the challenges of the Beacon were something entirely new and unknown.

Q: What is the most prominent gain and how your experiences will impact your career? 

It is hard to pick a particular gain, I have obtained multiple organisational skills and technical skills. But if I had to pick one, I would say the biggest gain has been to understand how to work in a big team, and in a big project. This personal experience is something I can take with me, even outside the bioinformatics field. These transferable skills are probably the most valuable thing I've gained during the internship. 

Q: What impact do you think your internship has had on the project?

It is difficult to say something specific, but I think having someone taking care of this specific project in a full-time role has had a big impact. Over the last 5-9 months, we have moved forward from conceptualising Beacon v2 to a more accomplished product. The development has been much faster since I joined, and I’d like to think I played a key role in this fast-forward team process.

Learn more about the impact of the internship here. We talked to Jordi Rambla, team leader at the CRG, who shared with us the institution's perspective. He emphasises the crucial role of Marta for the success of the Beacon project and praises her skills and proactive response.

Q: If you could change something about this internship, what would it be?

The only thing I would change is the starting date.

It was a great experience and certainly worth it. I would recommend it to anyone with similar career ambitions as mine.

Wed 6 May 2020