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Student on a summer placement develops new way of visualising genetics data

A student on a short-term placement at The Institute of Cancer Research, London, has led development of a new tool to visualise and analyse complex genetics data sets.

Matthew Scales helped develop the software during a six-week placement in Professor Richard Houlston’s team, after studying for a degree in mathematics at Imperial College London. He now has a joint PhD studentship between the ICR’s Division of Genetics and Epidemiology and Imperial College.

A full description of the project has been published in the journal PLOS One. The tool is called visPIG – short for visual plotting interface for genetics. It allows researchers working in genetics to produce publication-quality images to display complex data in an understandable way, bringing together multiple types and sources of information at the same time.

VisPIG was developed to help tackle some of the routine difficulties that genetics researchers face in the course of their work. Other software tools do exist but are often focused on the analysis of data, rather than displaying results, or require detailed technical skills to use.

The new tool is designed to be easy to use and produces publication-quality data. It is freely available on the ICR’s web servers at

The project was mostly funded by support to Professor Houlston’s team from the European Union, Cancer Research UK and Leukaemia and Lymphoma Research.

Professor Houlston, Matthew’s supervisor throughout the project, said:

“During short-term work placements we try to focus students’ efforts on achievable projects that can help us in our work – and give them an opportunity to make a mark. This new online research tool will help counteract some of the day-to-day frustrations we face in trying to produce images that make sense of large amounts of complicated data – and it could help other research groups working in our field too.

“Matthew’s project shows that it’s possible to produce something tangible within a short space of time here, even something that is ultimately published in an academic paper. This sort of experience can certainly help when applying for a PhD, whether it’s here at the ICR or elsewhere.”

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