Sheri Sanders spent her high school and undergraduate years preparing for a career in medicine, and eventually attended veterinarian school.
That lasted one semester.
“I realized I missed all the research,” said Sanders ’16 Ph.D., now the associate director of Bioinformatics for the Genomics and Bioinformatics Core Facility (GBCF) at the University of Notre Dame, with an appointment in the Department of Biological Sciences as an associate professor of the practice in bioinformatics. “I was working in a neurobiology lab at the time, and was looking forward to going to that every day rather than school…so I thought, maybe I should reconsider becoming a veterinarian.”
Her mother worked as a computer-aided design engineer, designing car parts, and her dad was an airplane mechanic, so Sanders had a lifetime of exposure to computer programming and engineering, though she did it for fun. After pivoting from veterinary school, she began in genomics but soon discovered how she could meld her programming interest with biology.
After taking a bioinformatics class—and after listening to some career advice given to her by Michael Pfrender, professor in the Department of Biological Sciences and director of the GBCF in whose lab she conducted her doctoral research—Sanders knew she had found her future career.
“When I took the bioinformatics intro class, it was the first time I had done programming in years, and I absolutely loved it, and it was just a lot of fun,” she said. “I found it to be a really nice compliment to biology.
“When working in biology, it can be chaos; anything could be driving your problems, since it’s not a manufactured system. It could be the environment, the experiment, or whatever, but with computer science we can make the chaos into a solvable problem.”
She also began to enjoy pedagogy, with its intricacies of teaching biologists and people without a programming background how to leverage data. While earning her doctorate at Notre Dame, she taught six courses and wrote a 200-page textbook that introduces biologists to computational biology.
A Michigan native, Sanders landed at Indiana University in Bloomington after completing her doctoral degree, and worked as a bioinformatic analyst for the National Center for Genome Support. She worked her way up to being principal investigator for the center. When the center was disbanded because of decentralization, she worked as a consultant for a year before recently being named the associate director of the core facility at Notre Dame.
She enjoys both the genomics and bioinformatics halves of her job. On one side, she trains graduate students in the use of data and computer programming so they can do their own data analyses. On the other side, she supports research and the research infrastructure for the GBCF. She said she hopes to procure some higher-end computational machines and software as the core pushes more research boundaries.
“In a dream world, I would like to build out a program to help train up biologists in data science and bioinformatics, because it’s such an important consideration to genetics now, and increasingly for ecology,” she said. “It would be nice to offer a grad certification or an undergraduate minor; I’m kicking around things that would be a good fit for the community.”
Sanders said she’s been impressed with the level of interest undergraduate students have in the field of bioinformatics, which is something that surprised her. “I even had a student come up to me and ask, how do we get more? I said—just wait!”
Sanders graduated from Michigan State University with a bachelor’s degree in zoology and ecological science and management, and earned her master’s degree at the University of Texas at Tyler where she studied the morphological, ecological, and genetic phylogenetics of map turtles. During her doctoral studies at Notre Dame with Pfrender, she learned how to do RNA sequencing at the dawn of that technology, focusing on a female line of salamanders that “pilfer” genes from the males in an unusual way.