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New director to extend EBI's reach


Janet Thornton got her start in physics, but escaped as soon as she could. After earning a degree in the field, she switched to biophysics and began studying protein structures. The thousands of structures that were discovered gave her “a wonderful playground to play in over the last 30 years.”

Thornton’s newest playground is the European Bioinformatics Institute, where she was recently appointed research director. She’ll take a five-year unpaid leave from her joint teaching positions at University College and Birkbeck College in London with the possibility of staying on longer at EBI.

Working with EBI is nothing new to Thornton, who has consulted for the institute and dealt extensively with the protein database there. As more funds become available from the European Union, EMBL, and the Wellcome Trust, Thornton plans to establish new research groups during her tenure. “The challenge is to recruit some new people,” she says. She speculates that by the end of her five-year term, the staff might double its current number of 130.

Another goal is to promote the integration of EBI’s five major data resources so users around the world can tap in once and get the answers they need, rather than having to use each resource independently. Thornton will also try to extend EBI’s reach on the industry front. “We have an industry club which involves big pharma, but at the moment we don’t do a lot for the smaller companies,” she adds.

Thornton replaces Michael Ashburner, who will return to a full-time job at the University of Cambridge. He will, however, continue in the role of consultant to EBI and will work closely with Thornton.

— Meredith Salisbury

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