Spotlight On: Alejandro Barrera


Alejandro Barrera is a senior bioinformatician in the Center for Combinatorial Gene Regulation. He is originally from Madrid, Spain and loves the people and activities. Barrera enjoys spending time with his child, building structures, playing with the family dog. He also loves sports. He plays tennis and soccer, and goes on bike rides and runs.

What are some of your contributions to the Duke CEGS/CCGR project?
I help download, process and analyze genomics and functional characterization data that's generated. By working with software developers and other bioinformaticians on the team, we incorporate these results into the CEGS/CCGR portal. Then we design and implement interactive and novel ways to explore and integrate these datasets.

What excites you most about this project?
I'm most excited to create and make a resource available to the community that will serve as a reference for combinatorial regulatory effects on gene expression. I find it very interesting that we really don't know much about the network of regulatory elements and how those affect gene expression. I find the concept of "shadow enhancer" fascinating. That's where regions of the noncoding genome can "sub in" when primary enhancers are silenced. I'm very excited about the experiments in CEGS/CCGR that systematically interrogate all combinations of possible enhancers for some known target gene.  

Where do you spend most of your time during work?
I'm purely computational, so I work on my standing desk where I like to follow 1-2 rule: for every two hours spent sitting, stand up for one. I love it!

What does your typical work day look like?
I don't have an alarm clock since our 14 month old daughter wakes us up around 6:30am. But, once my child is off to daycare I start my work day around 9am, checking my email and Slack, unless I have a meeting. During the day, there is a mix of meetings and tasks that I try to accomplish, as well as chatting with team members and researchers working in the CEGS project. Often we create work tasks out of those small interactions and from other formal meetings. Once the action items have been set, I use any remaining time to fulfill those duties.

What do you like most about what you do? And, in what ways do you inspire others?
I love helping others, and I feel I always have ways to do that in our group. Hopefully that mindset can inspire people on the team to feel the same way.

How has working at Duke changed or impacted your life?
Duke has been a great working environment and it has brought me not only an amazing network of talented colleagues, but also some of my closest friends.

What was your major in undergrad? Does it align to your career now?
My major in Computer Science has enabled me to drift into bioinformatics and computational biology, and if definitely helps me in my day to day activities. 

What advice would you give to someone who doesn't know exactly what they want to do in undergrad?
Try to make the most of every opportunity you get, and to explore the options that you are most intrigued by. Sometimes you just don't know how things are going to unfold, but you won't really know if you like something unless you give it a fair shot. The easiest way to feel engaged and to thrive, is to enjoy what to do, and even if it takes time to find that, liking what you do is a recipe for success.

If you could go anywhere in the world, where would it be and why?
I'm dying to go to New Zealand and see all the natural places it has.

If you could choose one meal for the rest of your life, what would it be?
Jamón (spanish ham)! It is just the best.

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