Sarah Beecroft – Biology & Big Data Need Bigger Computers, Pawsey

Sarah Beecroft joined Pawsey in 2020 to increase support for our bioinformatics research community.  With a research background in the genetics of neuromuscular disease, she had already experienced firsthand how genetics research is becoming increasingly reliant on computational power.  She regularly needed to apply coding skills to examine the complexities of biological phenomena, entering the realm of bioinformatics.  In a happy professional development, Sarah discovered that she thrives on the analytical challenge of coding, and now extends that expertise to help other researchers who may be less comfortable with the newest HPC tools available in genetics research.

“Supercomputing has traditionally not been used in the life sciences, so getting biology users onto supercomputing resources is still a challenge,” says Sarah.  “But Pawsey is a science enabler.  With my expertise in medical research, I understand both the scientific concepts that bioinformatics and biology researchers are working with, and how their research efforts can be fast-tracked by HPC.”

As Pawsey’s Bioinformatics Applications Specialist, Sarah provides training and development about using Pawsey resources and upskills researchers to apply them to biological questions.  She also directly assists researchers with problems through the helpdesk, implements computational pipelines that are easy to run and well-documented, and generally builds the supportive infrastructure around the developing bioinformatics ‘community of practice’.

“It is very gratifying getting biology researchers running on our systems.  I’ve been ‘on the other side’, and I know first-hand how helpful it is when someone can give you the solution or the tool you so desperately need for your research.”

“I feel very privileged to work here, it’s a great blend of intellectual freedom, new projects, helping people achieve their research goals, coding-based work, problem solving, and training others.  It’s not a ‘siloed’ workplace at all, so there are lots of interactions across all areas at Pawsey, and I have ongoing collaborations with a significant sub-section of our users.  And I’m constantly learning myself, which is great.”

Sarah can see that HPC will become increasingly important both for researchers and industry in future.  “Some genetic computational work that would take decades to run on a laptop can be done in a day using our resources – we provide computational capacity on a scale that is hard to access in any other way.  The scale of the work that needs to be done will just continue to increase, as our understanding of complex biological systems continues to grow.  Data analytics will be an important area for a long time to come.”

Sarah expects the research community as a whole to become much more HPC-savvy in the next decade, because she’s helping to make that happen.

Sarah Beecroft and Pascal Elahi are two of the newer faces at Pawsey, working as Applications Specialists to expand the range of research communities that can access and use HPC to full advantage.  They both see the need for a more diverse and gender-balanced workforce, to better represent and serve all Australian researchers.  Fortunately, the Pawsey leadership promote and support improved diversity and equality, which sets a cultural precedent.

“With the inclusion of research area specialists like Pascal and myself, both Pawsey’s workforce and research communities should steadily become more diverse and inclusive over time”, says Sarah. 

“The gender balance should be better, but the number of women in HPC is slowly increasing”, notes Pascal.  “Pawsey and others are continuing their efforts to keep girls engaged in STEM and I hope this will progressively address this artificial imbalance.” 

They agree that equity and diversity is an ongoing commitment: “HPC should be for everyone who can benefit from it, and Pawsey itself will continue to work to reflect that.”