Meet Helena Ahlfors, our new Head of Research Data and Technology at the BioResource!

Find out more about Helena, including why she chose to work at the BioResource, her hobbies, and the best book she's ever read!

Helena Ahlfors, Head of Research Data and Technology
Helena Ahlfors at the Golden Gate Bridge (photo by Kevin Ward)

Where did you work before the NIHR BioResource and what did the role involve?  

I worked at Illumina, more specifically at the Illumina Laboratory Services (ILS) which provides Whole Genome Sequencing (WGS) for its customers, including the NHS and the NIHR BioResource. ILS was originally set up to deliver the 100k project, which was the national pilot program to test the implementation of WGS in routine healthcare.  

At ILS I lead the Bioinformatics validation team (covering both rare diseases and cancer) that, together with other teams, made certain that our assays gave reliable and reproducible results that remained compliant with ISO15189 accreditation. Validation would cover, for example, introducing a new library prep or DRAGEN bioinformatics pipeline. 

Why did you want to work at the NIHR BioResource?  

As a clinical scientist, I’m always interested in improving patients’ lives. The way NIHR BioResource sits between Addenbrooke’s Hospital and the University of Cambridge gives it a unique opportunity to empower world-class research and, bring innovative solutions to patient care. 

What will you bring to the team?  

I have worked in academia, the NHS and the private sector, which provides me with a good understanding of the needs of the patients but also ideas on what we could do better.  

I did my PhD in immunology and have a multidisciplinary background covering bioinformatics, genetics, data science, biostatistics, immunology and molecular biology; including a strong publication record, that also demonstrates my collaboration skills.  

I’ve also worked as a technical expert in bioinformatics for the United Kingdom Accreditations Services (UKAS), assessing laboratories across the country for compliance for ISO15189 standard. I have a postgrad diploma in ‘Leadership and Management in Healthcare’, with 8+ years of experience leading one or more teams.  

My goal is to use my expertise and experience to act as a catalyst between people and fields, to help with our mission. 

What’s one professional achievement you’re most proud of? 

Being awarded the clinical scientist registration with The Health and Care Professionals Council (HCPC), through the Scientist Training Programme (STP) equivalence route. This required me to write a 150-page portfolio with objective evidence describing how my knowledge, skills and experience meet the Good Scientific Practice (GSP) standards that cover: Professional Practice, Scientific Practice, Clinical Practice, Research, development and innovation and Clinical Leadership. 

What’s the most exciting part of your new role?  

Getting the opportunity to lead a department consisting of nearly forty staff in areas such as data science, bioinformatics, IT and InfoSec, and participating in all the exciting projects we are working on. One of my strengths is helping to build great teams and I want to help my team heads to become better leaders via coaching and mentoring so that they in turn can continue building strong and collaborative teams. 

How would you describe yourself in three words?  

Innovator, listener, fair. 

What do you do to relax (hobbies, interests, etc.) 

I have played the clarinet since I was 9 years old. I’m a member of the Bloomsbury Band for clarinets and flutes that perform 2-3 times a year.  

My exercise routine includes indoor rowing, indoor cycling, yoga and walking. I also like swimming but haven’t been back to the pool since COVID. 

What’s the best book you’ve ever read?  

Animal Farm by George Orwell. It’s been a while since I’ve read it but I still remember how it made me see the world differently. 

Do you have any hidden talents or skills? What are they? 

I believe that there is always a way forward and I rarely think that something is not possible. It is just a matter of coming up with alternative ways to view the situation and then proceed; when faced with any given scenario, we can quickly spot relevant issues, thanks to our capabilities to find connections between seemingly disparate phenomena. 

Please share with us a random fact or story about yourself!  

I take pains to uncover how and why things happen or work as they do, which can be annoying for some people; but I’m not pedantic about it. When I was maybe 10 or 11, I took my clarinet apart; I unscrewed all the metal plates, cleaned and put everything back together. You should have seen my dad’s face when he came home from work and saw the clarinet in parts on the kitchen table! 

Thanks, Helena! If you are interested in hearing more about our team leaders or want to suggest someone from the BioResource for us to interview, please get in touch via email to the BioResource Communications Team

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