Since I last wrote about my experiences learning to code, I’ve transitioned to a project that it is fully computational. That means that for the last few months and the next few months, instead of culturing cells and doing molecular biology, I am now writing code all day every day. I am loving it, and one of the biggest reasons is because of my amazing co-worker, Jesi. Our lab is a genomics/epigenomics lab, which means we have huge datasets and we are trying to figure out how to extract meaningful information from 100s of GBs of data, analyze and interpret it, and communicate the results to the scientific community. Jesi is our lab’s bioinformatician, so it’s her main job to develop the data analysis pipelines and come up with alternative, creative ways to look at our data. You might be surprised to learn that as of last year, right before Jesi started the job as a bioinformatician, her only programming experience was one single MATLAB course.
Jesi graduated from the University of Pennsylvania in bioengineering in 2015. She had already planned to take a ‘gap year’ after graduating from college to apply to medical school. My first question for her was how she decided on the type of experience she wanted to have during her gap year.
Jesi tells me that she was open to anything, as long as it was something new. She had worked in 3 different labs doing benchwork throughout her college experience and so she initially thought that she didn’t want a job in a lab. She decided that she wanted to search for a job that would enable her to develop her computational skills. She looked at a few different opportunities and was offered a job at Epic, a med tech company based out of Madison. She considered moving there, but realized that for her, it made a lot more sense to stay in Philadelphia with her family.
Right before graduating, she saw a job posting for a bioinformatician in a lab in her same department. While she originally thought she didn’t want to work in a lab, she realized that this job would be the perfect opportunity for her to develop her computational skills and try something totally different from her previous lab experiences. Her advice to others who are trying to decide what to do during a gap year before applying to medical school is to “be open-minded and don’t put yourself in a box”. She was surprised by the opportunities that came her way, and ended up feeling that she made the right decision even though it wasn’t what she had initially pictured for her gap year.
When applying to jobs during a gap year or two, Jesi also offers the advice:
“Be very honest from the beginning. If you know you’re going to go to med school after a year or two, let them know. The [medical school] interview process is very stressful and you have to take a lot of time off. For me, it was great because my boss was very, very lenient and if I ever needed to leave for an interview, she said ‘of course, that always comes first’.”
I was also very curious how Jesi framed her experiences and skill set while she was interviewing for jobs that weren’t in her existing area of expertise. Jesi says it was crucial to be very honest from the beginning, telling all of her interviewers that she had almost no coding experience. “I let them know it would be a learning experience for me and that I was willing to put in the time and effort required to do the job even though I wouldn’t be bringing in that skill set.” So how did she set herself apart in the interview process? “When people asked me what my positive traits were, I made sure to tell them I was a fast learner. I also made sure to show them specific examples in my resume that backed up what I was saying.”
Once Jesi got the job, she experienced a pretty steep learning curve. “Initially, it was really intimidating. Even though I came into the job without the background and my boss knew it, there were still big shoes to fill because I was replacing someone who had just left. I felt pressure to get up to speed really quickly and I felt a little like I wasn’t ready for the job. But that was really helpful for me in the end because that’s what inspired me to go out and look for resources where I could learn how to code and try to get up to speed. I guess that pressure was really good for me. My lab was really great, especially my boss. She knew where I was at so she gave me a lot of resources and made sure to always explain everything and catch me up.”
Jesi is so sure of her next sentence that she pulls the recorder right up next to her mouth and says, “DON’T GET INTIMIDATED!” She goes on, “I feel like often times people get intimidated about how good other people are at coding or whatever. But I don’t think it’s a competition. If you work hard and be diligent and work towards your own goals, you will somehow find yourself there. I think getting intimidated and running away from it is the worst thing you can do. You have to tackle it and go online, find free courses, and just take it. See where it gets you. I feel like coding is something everyone can do. It’s like Ratatouille, where they say ‘anyone can cook.’ Anyone can code. It’s not something that only special people can do. It’s scary in the beginning, but then you just throw yourself into it. I actually regret the intimidation that I felt initially.”
I ask Jesi if she ever got so frustrated taking on such a huge task that she wanted to quit.
“No”, she says. “I don’t think I’ve ever regretted taking this job. From the beginning, I realized ‘Wow, i made such a good decision joining this lab.’ But there were difficult times, definitely. When my code is running and it’s almost done running, there’s a second where I’m just sitting there and I realize I’m not breathing. And then I’ll look at the output and I’ll either be super frustrated or ecstatic that my code is working. So there are those moments, where my heart literally sinks, but I think that the moments where I feel super excited about my results make up for all of the disappointing moments where the code doesn’t work.”
Now I’m off to look at the outputs of the code Jesi and I spent all this week writing. Crossing my fingers for good results, but if we have more bugs to sort through, Jesi’s incredibly upbeat attitude will make it all ok!
“Statistics and R: An introduction to basic statistical concepts and R programming skills necessary for analyzing data in the life sciences”
“Programming for Everyone: An Introduction to Python”
Jesi -- I will miss you so much!! You're going to do so amazing at Harvard! Thank you for the wonderful year and for teaching me so much!