Former HHMI predoctoral fellow Eurie Hong must keep up with everybody's business-in the yeast research world, that is. As head curator at the Web-based Saccharomyces Genome Database (SGD, www.yeastgenome.org), located at Stanford University, she must scrutinize the results of all relevant published research and then integrate pertinent information into the database.
Hong's profession is less than 15 years old, and curators are still counted globally in the hundreds rather than thousands. The field is growing rapidly, however, as genomes are sequenced and studies pour out data that need to be made widely accessible. "It is really about being brokers of information," she says.
She notes that a curator must understand biology well, be good at critical thinking, and communicate effectively. It's a big challenge to stay current with discoveries in the field. "The science technology is changing so much. In order to understand the results, you have to understand the technology. For large-scale studies, we have to be able to understand the technology to interpret and integrate the data into the database," she says.
Although some research data are available only at a cost, all the data that Hong adds to SGD are free and publicly available. She believes strongly that science benefits greatly from facilitating maximum access to scientific findings. "Advances in science are best achieved by sharing information and sharing data," she says. "One thing a person does can inspire someone else to take it farther."
While the United States is currently the world leader in overall scientific research, Hong cited dire predictions about falling numbers of science graduates and subsequent erosion of U.S. competitiveness in science over the next 30 to 40 years. This does not need to happen, she says. "For me, the answer is basic science education in high schools. Make the students excited about science, not seeing scientists merely as people in white lab coats mixing different colored chemicals together." One way that Hong reaches out to students is by answering Ask a Scientist questions, which she has done for more than 10 years.
Hong comes from a medical family. Her father is a surgeon, and her mother is a nurse. She says her parents encouraged her scientific thinking by constantly asking her questions about the world. "In the car, my Dad would ask, 'Why do you think school buses are yellow?' The questions didn't necessarily have an answer, but they made me think."
As an undergraduate, she studied biological sciences at Stanford University in California. "At that time, I was more interested in developing an educational curriculum for disadvantaged youths to encourage them to go to college," Hong says. However, while working on such a project one summer with a group in inner-city Los Angeles, she found herself preoccupied with science. So she joined a lab at the University of Chicago that was investigating the mechanism of DNA repair and meiotic recombination and, supported by an HHMI predoctoral fellowship, earned her Ph.D.
A curatorial career makes good use of Hong's scientific training and her interest in education. Googling "yeast genome" gives SGD as the first hit. "Hopefully, people will start realizing that it's an actual scientist making the data available on these Web pages, not just a computer program," Hong laughs.
Author: Cathy Kristiansen