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Genomics Jetsetter

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Audrey Long is on a whirlwind tour of the industry. If you haven’t met her yet, it probably won’t be long before you do.

 

By Meredith W. Salisbury

 

After practically living on a plane for the past two years, Audrey Long has developed jetlag defense. She doesn’t even try to adjust to different time zones on her typical week-long cross-continental jaunts. It’s about 10 in the morning when she decides against brunch and orders a regular French roast coffee at a New York eatery. She’s not hungry, having stuck firmly to her British schedule — and eaten a hearty meal in her hotel at midnight the night before.

It’s been a remarkable two years for the globetrotting, Cambridge, UK-based Long as she attempts what some would call the impossible: meeting every last person in the genomics industry. She zips from one city to the next, has racked up 200,000 frequent flier miles, and has gotten so used to traveling life that she’s even considered toting along her beloved guitar, which was scaled down in size to fit her petite frame. As genomics business development manager for UK firm The Automation Partnership (TAP), Long’s job is to figure out all the different processes used in genomics — and then make them faster, more efficient, or higher throughput using industrial automation systems.

Two of her pet projects right now involve what she sees as the next bottlenecks: DNA extraction and high-throughput PCR. The current methods are too labor-intensive. She picks up a Nantucket Nectars apple juice bottle, tilting and shaking it to demonstrate the procedure, pointing out where a robotic arm could work nicely and where an automatic pipette might hinder things. Her approach to each problem? “Let’s try to make this light bulb light up in a different way.”

TAP’s model is to collaborate, which is why Long has to know everyone. And she does, “in a nice way,” says former colleague Jack Ball, now at Orchid BioSciences. He says that she manages to be friends with one and all, although she never loses her professionalism. “I don’t think anybody in business has ever seen her with her hair down,” Ball says (in fact, she almost always keeps her two to four feet of hair clipped up). He calls it her “professional image.”

Indeed, it’s the people Long enjoys most about her job. A consummate networker and something of a matchmaker, she tries to pair up people with similar goals. In one case, she was approached by someone with particularly interesting data, and shortly after met someone else looking for just such a trove to publish. She brought them together, “and hey, presto, a paper came out!” But she often has to be cautious about this. “I have confidentialities left, right, and center,” she says. “So a lot of this is, ‘You go talk to them, I can’t tell you why.’”

Even if she’s not nosing out potential collaborations, Long simply gets a kick out of meeting people. One of the most fun times she’s ever had was a night out with six colleagues from six different countries. “At least 30 percent of what each person said, no one else could understand,” she recalls. “I don’t think we stopped laughing the whole night.”

Jumping bean

Her accomplishments are impressive on their own, but what makes them even more noteworthy is that Long is just 35. She’s got degrees in biochemistry, marketing, and business, and has worked in sales, genomics, regulatory affairs, and robotics.

Long’s ability to squeeze all that in — with a daily schedule packed with fielding dozens of e-mails about robotics and regulatory implications of genomics, working on any number of ongoing automation projects, and meeting with colleagues about TAP’s strategy and marketing — is a marvel to those around her. “She’s full of beans,” laughs Tim Harris, president and CEO of Structural GenomiX. “She’s got lots of energy.”

Those beans have served her well. Armed with her biochem degree, Long began her career at Pharmacia in sales and marketing (a side of science work that “had never even crossed my mind”). Once there, she worried about what she’d gotten herself into, so she dove into a marketing degree program. She earned her stripes and became industrial sales manager during her eight years there.

Hungry to keep learning, she began an MBA, then left Pharmacia in 1997 to help Rod Westrop launch a UK version of the Houston-based Lark Technologies, a genomics services company. It was at Lark that she got such a handle on genomics and FDA regulations that she became an expert adviser to pharmaceutical companies.

Soon after, she headed to TAP for the new challenge of robotics. When Ali Ahmadi, the first person at TAP to aim automation at the genomics market, realized that Long had relevant experience, he staked his claim on her. “Well,” she smiles, “he got his way.” Within six months, she’d switched departments to help Ahmadi on the genomics front, and has been there ever since.

Ahmadi boasts, “I believe that no one will argue if I claim to have been proven right!”

Tough cookie

Long credits her mother with giving her “a determination to make things right.” Her Chinese mother endured the Japanese occupation of Borneo in the 1940s and wound up raising her son and daughter on her own in England. “She’s a pretty tough cookie,” Long says. “I think that’s where I get it.”

No doubt. When she was 20, Long survived a motorcycle accident that smashed her left leg. “They were going to amputate it,” she says, patting the calf that still has no feeling. Doctors were able to save the limb with synthetic bone, but Long had already lost much of her last year of college. Afraid that technology would advance so quickly she’d have to start over, she hobbled around the lab on crutches for hours to complete her degree on time.

Long doesn’t give up easily, and that’s saying a lot for someone who takes on so much. She regularly picks up new languages, and has made what she calls reasonable progress in French, German, and Swedish. Her most recent undertaking is Persian.

She ruefully recalls, however, her attempt at Mandarin, which she spoke fluently as a child but has since forgotten. She began studying and called her mother to show off her acumen. “I thought I said, ‘How are you, Mother?’ and she said, ‘You just called me a horse.’” Long grins. “That’s the one thing I have given up.”