Valerie Schneider: Diving Deep into Information Engineering
Highlighting the Work of Our Unique NIH Staff Scientists
BY KATHRYN MCKAY, NLM
Valerie Schneider dives deep—whether it’s into the ocean or her work. Ironically, if it weren’t for a fish, this developmental biologist and deep-sea diver might not have rediscovered her love of genetics and landed a career as a staff scientist at the National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI) at the National Library of Medicine. Now, in her fourth-floor office at NIH, Schneider stays focused on what’s important for NCBI’s Information Engineering Branch.
Here she talks about her career, how diving makes a difference in her life, and why juggling everything doesn’t work.
CREDIT: CHIA CHI CHARLIE CHANG
NCBI Staff Scientist Valerie Schneider.
Schneider recalled that as a child she enjoyed seeing cicada wings under a microscope, studying Gregor Mendel, and creating Punnett squares. Naturally, she majored in biology, a popular major at Cornell University (Ithaca, New York). There, Schneider had access to an array of biology classes. When she was introduced to the field of developmental biology and specifically embryology, she thought it was “the coolest thing.”
For Schneider, “Development is a natural read-out for understanding genes: perturb a gene or gene interactions and you often can see the impact on the macromolecular level.”
Upon graduating in 1994, Schneider had options.
“At Cornell, there were three basic paths for biology majors if you were going to stay in the field: med school, vet school, and the research path,” she explained.
Research won out primarily because she realized that she wanted to learn even more about biology.
She applied to graduate schools everywhere from Seattle to Boston and ultimately decided on the Ph.D. program at Harvard Medical School (Boston). “There was amazing research going on, and the people were down to earth and superfriendly,” she said. She got her Ph.D. in 2001.
At Harvard, she studied Xenopus laevis, the African clawed frog, which had embryos that were perfect for studying early development. The large size and minimal culture needs of frog embryos made it possible to perform all types of experiments that altered the typical developmental program. By using microinjections to perturb gene expression and an eyelash knife to do embryonic surgeries, she could learn how different parts of the embryo interacted to give rise to a head or heart.
Fate and a fish
She might have kept studying X. laevis as a postdoc, but fate and a fish intervened.
In 2001, her husband accepted a position in the Philadelphia area, and the University of Pennsylvania had an opening for a postdoc in a lab using the zebrafish (Danio rerio) as a model system.
Looking back, she said, “It was fortuitous because in the late 1990s, zebrafish as a model organism took off when Christiane Nüsslein-Volhard, who had won the Nobel prize for her work in fruit flies, decided to develop zebrafish as a model system for developmental biology.
“Working with zebrafish brought me back to that first love I had of genetics, because, while frogs were amazing for doing development work as a model organism for genetics, they have complexities with their chromosomes that make doing genetics really hard.”
She did both developmental biology and genetics at the University of Pennsylvania.
“It was the best of both worlds.”
Her work also aligned with what was going on in the greater scientific world.
“The Human Genome Project had released their draft version about 2001, when I got started,” she said. “As I was cloning this gene in zebrafish, there wasn’t a complete zebrafish genome yet, but there was a zebrafish genome project.”
But what was next?
When her postdoc was over in 2007, Schneider wondered, “What’s next?” She could become a principal investigator. She could take a position in industry. She could leave the field entirely. She could teach. Or maybe she could do something else.
Coincidentally, at that time, NCBI was hiring more scientists.
She explained, “By 2007, the Human Genome Project was moving into a new phase and NCBI, which had been playing a role in a lot of the data management for the Genome Project, had joined this consortium to continue improving the reference. Just as I was finishing up my postdoc, there was a call for people to come curate the genome.”
She was intrigued. And working at NCBI would mean that she’d be able to find the time to enjoy her passion as a certified scuba-diving instructor while still pursuing her interest in genetics.
The leap from academia to government felt huge. “Stepping away from the bench into a bioinformatics environment would be quite a shift. I didn’t doubt I could do it—but did I want it?”
Diving in at NCBI
“I loved the lab—and still do—but what was more important to me was the scientific question and the process of getting an answer regardless of the specific topic, as long as it was good science and an interesting topic. It was ... an alignment of the stars ... that NCBI was looking for genome curators, and a favorite part of my postdoc work was the genome.”
When she arrived on campus 10 years ago, NCBI was focused on curating the human genome.
“This meant working a lot with the developers to figure out what kind of software tools we needed to manage the genome and what kind of database structures we would need,” said Schneider.
It helped that she had a mentor.
“I had an absolutely fantastic mentor when I started here. Deanna Church pushed me in lots of areas,” said Schneider. “After I’d been here a couple of years, she encouraged me to take the lead on a complete overhaul of NCBI’s Clone database.”
She was up for it.
Then in 2013, Church left NCBI—and Schneider inherited a broad range of genome-associated tools and displays.
She called her mentor.
Advice to remember
“I remember saying, ‘Oh my gosh, there’s so much going on and I have so many balls in the air,’” said Schneider. “I never forgot Deanna’s advice. She said, ‘You know what you learn in this job is not to be a perfect juggler; it’s knowing which balls you can let bounce. It’s prioritizing and understanding priorities and the dependencies between things.’”
Today as the program head for the Sequence Tools and Displays section (SeqView) in the Information Engineering Branch, Schneider still relies on that advice.
Only now, instead of focusing on each and every development task, she’s constantly monitoring organizational-level priorities and dependencies for the businesses in her program, which include BLAST, sequence display and analysis tools, and public-facing interfaces for many of NCBI’s sequence databases.
Communication and being a female scientist
“NCBI works well because we have this mix of backgrounds, but sometimes communication can be challenging,” acknowledged Schneider. “It’s not that we speak different languages; we think a little differently. What one group might perceive as easy, the other may know is not so straightforward.”
In terms of sex, she said, “My perception of NCBI is that it’s pretty balanced, but when you dig into specifics, you find that more of the biologists are women and more of the developers are men, which means that as a biologist working with the development team I might be the only woman in the room even though there a lot of women in NCBI.”
CREDIT: EVERETT REDMOND
Valerie Schneider loves to scuba dive.
No matter whom she’s meeting with, Schneider said, “I know I need to bring my A-game to the table.” For her, this means being prepared and being fully present. It also means not hesitating to ask questions. “I think it’s far worse to not ask the question and come out of a meeting or an interaction with someone completely lost,” she explained.
She also advises speaking with confidence. “Someone else once told me that [when] with large groups of people, speak as if you’re the most confident person in the room,” she said. “Don’t be hesitant in the way that you present your opinion. And I found that to be good advice. Be strong and be open.”
Diving deep—on land and sea
Part of the reason Schneider loves to dive is that “it’s amazing to see the other three-quarters of the planet.”
Part of the reason she enjoys being a scientific leader at NCBI is the opportunity to “really appreciate the breadth of knowledge that’s here.”
Whether she’s submerging herself in work or water, this scientific adventurer keeps investigating.
This article is adapted from one that appeared in NLM in Focus, https://infocus.nlm.nih.gov/2019/04/30/focus-on-valerie-schneider-diving-deep-into-information-engineering/.