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Grey genomics w/ VCGS Senior Scientist Belinda Chong

The grassy parkland replete with big hill to roll down offered a nostalgic mirage on my way next door to the Royal Childrens Hospital (RCH) on Flemington Road, Melbourne. Running on fumes, I wandered inside - that colossal, veritable wonderland, where for a moment I was 3 feet tall, trying to see what I'd once have seen stumbling into this spaceship with worried parents on route to the doctors. First, leaves and butterflies floating on wire from lofty ceilings, an oceany aquarium of shiny fish, a rainbow coloured lolly shop and deeper still in this labyrinth of childhood delights, the golden arches reared its head. It all roused good feelings, and despite me momentarily struggling with the idea of fast food in a hospital, I felt for the sick kids wanting a happy meal before visiting meerkats - which I decided to save for my next visit. After a brief bite to eat, coffee and some more caffeine, I went next door to the Murdoch Childrens Research Institute, where Belinda Chong - Senior Scientist - met with me for an interview on the Victorian Clinical Genetics Services (VCGS).

So Belinda, how'd you get into genomics?

I think it was more by accident, I was at the right place at the right time kind of thing... While I was at uni, I had no clue what I wanted to do, but I had a huge range of subjects, I knew I was interested in science: chemistry, biochemistry, I had zoology, I had a whole range of different psychology... But the whole genomics thing didn't happen until I was doing my PhD or even post-doc.

Had any other profession caught your eye?

When I was doing my bachelors, and going into masters, I did think about doing nursing, yeah that's completely different again, looking at patients and patient care, but by the time I'd really thought about it I had already started my masters and was nearly completing it.

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This article originally appeared in Science & Diplomacy on 19 March, 2015. It is republished here with permission.

One way to address the global challenges of public health in developing countries is through international collaboration to share data. It’s important to do this not just for humanitarian reasons but because open information is at the heart of scientific progress. One field in which this is particularly evident is genomic research, which has made revolutionary progress in recent years. Since the first genetic variation causing inherited disease (sickle-cell anemia) was defined at the protein level sixty years ago,1 it has become possible to locate, isolate, sequence, and clone individual genes. Indeed, there has been an explosion in research to discover the function of each of the twenty thousand or so human genes.

Once the Human Genome Project—the international effort to map the genes present in the human genome—was completed, a new global project was launched in 2006 to share information about genetic variation in clinical practice. The Human Variome Project (HVP) acts as an umbrella organization, actively engaging with partners and stakeholders in each country to ensure that genetic variation information, generated during routine diagnostic and predictive testing, is collected and shared. The HVP is also instrumental in establishing and maintaining the standards, systems, and infrastructure that will embed the sharing of this knowledge in routine clinical practice.2

The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) serves as an important channel for the involvement of developing countries in the HVP, as it did during the Human Genome Project. One of the main goals of UNESCO is the development of international science that meets social needs in health, food, education, and other standards of living.

This goal has become increasingly relevant in the Post-2015 Development Agenda,3 which aims to address these global challenges, including the burden of diseases on the performance and growth of many nations, particularly in developing countries where issues of public health are of major concern.4 Formed at the end of World War II, UNESCO was one of numerous initiatives for international scientific cooperation undertaken by the nascent United Nations. These scientific cooperation initiatives were seen as diplomatic opportunities to promote collaborations among nations in hopes of fostering peace and development. The same sentiment is true today with the HVP, one of the latest efforts by UNESCO to promote collaboration.

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