Debunking myths on genetics and DNA

Monday, October 10, 2011

So, how does one become a computational biologist?

(Starting today, for the next two weeks, I will be guest blogging over at Scientopia, which means that the posts here will be cross-posted over there, too. As a first post, I thought I'd tell the story of how I ended up being a computational biologist. Forewarning: there are better and more linear ways to become a computational biologist. But, as we all know, life is hardly ever linear.)

I used to think genes dictate what we can be and the choices we make dictate what we end up being. Well, that's not quite true. I haven't accounted for opportunities.
When I finished college I wanted to be a mathematician. Math is pure and beautiful. It's like a Michelangelo painting, perfect all around. You follow the steps dictated by logic and you can't be wrong. It's Socratic. I got accepted into graduate school, and my husband arranged to finish his dissertation off site so we could both go. We fit all our belongings into two suitcases (that's all we had) and left. We were young, enthusiastic, and clueless.

The bus left us in the middle of nowhere in Massachusetts. The motel we'd booked was five miles away. A lady took pity on us and gave us a ride. I forgot the lady's name, but not her baby's: Timothy. He was the cutest baby.

I grew tired of doing pure math. Yes, it's beautiful and perfect. There's Banach spaces, and then Hilbert spaces, and then Banach spaces of Hilbert spaces, and Hilberts of Banachs of Hilberts... I felt lost in one of Dr. Seuss's pictures. Oh, the thinks you can think... Yes you can, but do you want to?

(My mathematician friends, please don't hate me. I'm in confession mode, so bear with me.)

So when my husband got a postdoc in Vienna, Austria, we packed again and left. By then we had four suitcases and a baby. In Vienna I started freelance writing. I wasn't paid a penny but it was fun.

Vienna is beautiful, by the way. If you have enough money to enjoy it. We didn't.

The following year we moved to Valencia, Spain. We had four suitcases, five boxes, and a baby. Two years later we moved to Pasadena, California. We had four suitcases, twenty boxes, and two babies. Gosh, it's exponential, isn't it? Not the baby part, though. We stopped at two and glad we did.

In Pasadena I started missing my job. Did I mention I felt poor in Vienna? Haha, that was nothing compared to Pasadena! That's what Southern California does to you. I looked around but as it turns out with a degree in pure math there's not much you can do besides teaching. And I wasn't much into teaching. I continued to do freelance writing, and even though by now I was getting paid a little, it definitely wasn't enough.

So I decided to go back to school.

I applied to the biomath program at UCLA, the computational biology program at USC, and the biostat program at USC. I got accepted to all three of them. At the time I was stubbornly convinced that I could survive in Southern California without ever getting on a freeway.

I got up one morning at 4 a.m., took a bus, and three hours later I was at the UCLA campus, which is a whole city within a city. Never seen a campus that huge. The commute drained me. The next day I went to downtown to check out the USC computational biology department. The faculty there is impressive--gods in the field. Now that I knew I wasn't going to be a mathematician, I really wanted to become a computational biologist. That's where all the cool stuff was happening--genetics, protein folding, sequencing. And, they even offered me a scholarship.

Unfortunately, the USC downtown campus is not in a charming part of town (to put it in mild terms). And again, the commute from where I lived was going to be a killer. 

Finally, I went to the USC medical campus, which turned out to be ten miles down Huntington Drive from where we lived (no freeway! Can you believe it? I could get somewhere in LA county without getting on the freeway!), and met another god.

There's many gods in my life.

Stan is fantastic. If you live in Pasadena, go listen to him play the piano at the Parkway Grill on Thursday nights. He's amazing.

So, anyways, I got into the biostat program. Like I said, Stan is fantastic, and the no-freeway thing sealed the deal.

Statistics is not beautiful. You know the old saying: "There's lies, there's damn lies, and then there's statistics"? Well, it's true. I set off wanting to do pure math, which is perfect and beautiful, and here I was, doing dirty and very much imperfect stuff. But it's useful. And life, the way we describe it, is very much imperfect. So there. You can't apply perfect and beautiful to real life.

I decided I wanted to be a biostatistician. Even got a job as one. By then I could handle Californian freeways. Sort of. I still screamed from time to time. And I still got off at the wrong exits and stuff like that. But hey, the adrenaline high the morning commute down the Two-Ten gives you is unbeatable! (I don't miss it, BTW).

And then my husband had us move again. This time we filled a truck. Heck, give it enough time, you start buying furniture! No, let me rephrase that: give it enough time and a close enough Ikea.

On a side note, my husband hates Ikea. He's the one who has to decipher the cryptic drawings.

We moved to a remote part of Northern New Mexico, so remote that for a while it was only known as a "mail stop." But that's another story. For now, all I will say is that it's not the desert. It's got mountains, and trees, and forests, although the forests do tend to burn down every ten years or so...

Anyways, I'm getting carried away. The point I wanted to make is that we came out here and I met yet another god, my wonderful, amazing, gracious mentor. And guess what I ended up doing? Computational biology. Yeah, where all the cool stuff is happening.

Looking back, I did choose to become a computational biologist, didn't I?

Photo: water creek, Twin Falls, WA. Canon 40D, shutter speed 1/20, focal length 85mm, ISO 400.


  1. This article was very interesting because I also switched from pure mathematics to computational biology. While in graduate school I realized pure math, although interesting, was not for me as a career interest. Now I am in graduate school for a Ph.D in Computational Biology and it is the perfect fit, although it was a little overwhelming at times to get up to speed with the biological sciences when I first started in the field. I thought I was the only one to escape the rabbit hole of pure math and into comp. bio!

    1. Hi Nicolle, thanks for sharing your story and good luck with your PhD!
      I, too, am happy to know I'm not the only one! :-)

  2. Fascinating journey but how often does this happen? I'm retired now but looking back there were many times when I would go for a job interview and come out with something totally differant. In my case I wanted to work with animals after leaving school but nothing was suitable. So went into Horticulture. Over the years after college, being Staff at various educational units, numerous horticulture allied posts, I got to working with horses at 45. No I don't miss my car but I sure miss those horses. Life's journey is never straight however bear in mind what one of my 'gods' told me.

    If you have a dream you are three quarters to realising it. Follow your drummer. Never take NO for an answer. Your dream will become reallity. My dreams have.

  3. Thanks for sharing your story, Frazer. I don't know how often it happens, but it seems that it happened for the two of us, so who knows? I think we need to look at things differently, a "no" is not always a closing door, rather, a bunch of other doors opening in a different direction. :-)


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