Staff Spotlight: Integrating Bioinformatics Pipelines with Laura Jackson

By Daniel Timmermann

Laura Jackson joined the Maine-eDNA team in May 2021 as an integrative data scientist working with Maine EPSCoR. Jackson earned her Ph.D. in Bioinformatics at the University of South Dakota after finishing her masters and undergraduate work at Southeastern Louisiana University.

Having developed a background in data integration and large-scale fish analysis, Jackson explained that she was excited to join Maine-eDNA. “Being able to contribute to the development of  tools and resources that people need on this project is really exciting to me,” Jackson said continuing, “We have a really unique opportunity to understand what’s going on in the ecosystems surrounding Maine’s waterways.”

Jackson develops bioinformatics pipelines for Maine-eDNA’s macrosystem eDNA integration goal. These pipelines allow members of the project to take all of their data and conduct in depth analysis of that data. As part of UMaine’s Advanced Research Computing (ARCSIM), Jackson helps that analysis happen by helping with technical questions and analysis at two major supercomputing partners, Texas Advanced Computing Center (TACC), and Ohio Supercomputer Center (OSC). 

One aspect of Maine-eDNA that drew Jackson towards her current position was the interdisciplinary nature of the team. Jackson explained, “It was the fact that Maine-eDNA is a huge collaborative effort.” Elaborating, Jackson said, “I get to expand my skills and learn new tools, and collaborate with other people to understand how they would approach things and I think it really helps enhance and grow the project as you’re working on it together.”

While Jackson enjoys working with such an interdisciplinary team, the diverse backgrounds and areas of expertise provides a challenge when it comes to creating documentation for the tools and pipelines. Jackson creates documentation so that the tools and pipelines being developed are accessible and available to everyone on the project who needs them. Some people have past experience but many are learning how to use these tools for the first time which makes it critical for Jackson to make the tools as accessible and easy to use as possible. 

The sheer size of the grant alone is a factor in Jackson’s work. “A big thing, with so many people working on the grant, is to make everything reproducible… If everyone is using the same tool we need to make sure the tool is performing the same for everybody.”

As her work moves forward, Jackson is encouraged by what this could ultimately culminate in. Developing and perfecting these pipelines and tools will not only help scale up the current project, but give researchers the background to utilize computational tools into other research projects. Jackson hopes these tools and resources help people feel confident in understanding and applying computational tools to analyze and efficiently manage their data and learn about Maine’s waterways.