Samantha Atkinson, IGPI Scholar

The biggest benefit of the Interdisciplinary Graduate Program in Informatics' (IGPI) interdisciplinary framework is that students whose interests don’t fit well with an existing program find the flexibility to customize a unique curriculum. In doing so, they’re free to pursue personal interests, passions and goals from a number of departments where they can learn from nationally-recognized faculty who will support their objectives. Samantha Atkinson is one such scholar. 

After completing a master of science degree in biotechnology at Illinois State University, Atkinson pursued an informatics PhD at the University of Iowa. She hoped to skip the educational aspects involving mice and the dissection of biological specimens preferring to dive straight into the data. Therefore, an IGPI marriage of bioinformatics and computational biology was the perfect path for Atkinson whose research explores the human gut microbiome and factors relating to obesity. 

She was making great strides when after completing her second year of PhD studies, John Kirby, her adviser and the principal investigator of U-Iowa’s gut microbiome research, left to become the Chair of Microbiology and Immunology at the Medical College of Wisconsin (MCW). Through the IGPI program, Atkinson was able to physically transfer to MCW to continue her work with Dr. Kirby while completing her IGPI Informatics degree program at U-Iowa.

Atkinson is grateful for the help of Dr. Kirby, IGPI Adviser Terry Braun (College of Engineering; PhD in Genetics) and IGPI Program Manager Andrea Flaherty. Braun helped her secure a graduate fellowship that covered tuition and health insurance. There were a number of unforeseen challenges associated with physically transferring to MCW while continuing to make progress toward a PhD at Iowa; Flaherty kept her on track with paperwork and graduation requirements. She attributed the feat of successfully navigating this unique challenge to their collective institutional knowledge and steadfast support, “I couldn’t have done it without this wonderful interdisciplinary team working on my behalf!”

“I always wanted to work in industry upon graduation, and I’m now the resident bioinformatics expert at the MCW Center for Microbiome Research (Bioinformatics Analyst III),” said Atkinson. “I analyze data for researchers who utilize our center’s resources, and conduct workshops for those who want to learn how to analyze data themselves,” she added.

Her advice for aspiring scholars hoping to follow in her footsteps is to hone their communications skills. “In bioinformatics, learning to code and perform data analyses can be challenging for some, but the true struggle lies in explaining methodologies and results to a layperson; or the reasons why some analyses can’t be performed,” said Atkinson, and added “Scientists tend to regard bioinformatics as ‘magic’ because they submit data and receive pretty figures in return. Because they don’t see what happens on the back-end, you must be able to explain how the work was accomplished, and why certain tasks may take longer than expected.”