Like many kids growing up in the 90s, I can remember the first time I played a computer game. My elementary school had an Apple II, where we played The Oregon Trail. It seemed magical and I was curious about what was inside the case, making pixels appear and disappear and guiding me through the story.
My parents had moved us from Guadalajara, Mexico to the United States when I was six for better work and educational opportunities. When they saw my passion for computers, they pieced together what little money they had and bought me a 486 DX2 desktop computer for our home. It wasn’t long before I was tying up the phone line, tearing through America Online free trial CDs and begging for our own dialup internet account. We had settled in Auburn, California, and during my high school years, I convinced our electronics teacher to let us have a zero period. Every morning before school started, I could do self-study programming with other students who were interested in computers.
On the way home from a basketball game one day, a teammate’s dad suggested that I apply for a summer internship where he worked at Hewlett-Packard (HP). I sat at my computer to create my first ever resumé, applied, and got the internship the summer before college.
During my internship at HP, I met another intern who was studying computer science (CS) at Howard University. I was a little intimidated by the amount of math required to pursue a CS degree, but he helped change my perception. I was not naturally gifted in math, but he said all I needed to do was do my homework, get clarification when I needed from study groups or office hours, and study for exams. This simple advice was exactly what I needed at the time.
Enrolling at San Jose State University (SJSU) felt like being reacquainted with my Mexican roots. I’d been listening to punk rock, alternative music, and rap, but at SJSU, I woke up to the sounds of mariachi and was introduced to Spanish rock bands and artists that I really enjoyed. To pay for school, I worked at a web design firm and then at a startup called Excite@Home, where I did web development for the intranet site of the company.
Unfortunately, the company went from 3,500 employees to just around 500 in the course of a year and a half and I had a front row seat to watching the dot com bubble burst. Management laid-off most of my team and moved me from part-time to full-time to help with internal communication while the company continued to shut off operations. I continued chipping away at my credits, taking a math class early in the morning and then working full-time.
After finally getting laid-off, I tried to get another job to continue to pay for school but there was an oversaturation of software engineers in the Bay Area. My original plan after I graduated was to get an MBA and go back to work for HP or another major tech corporation. One day, I received a letter in the mail from Dr. Herbert Silber about a program called Minority Access to Research Careers (MARC). The letter asked, “Have you ever thought about doing a PhD?” I didn’t know what to expect, but I knew I needed financial assistance to pay for school, so I applied and was accepted.
Through MARC, I began doing research with a professor in the CS department and found that I loved doing research! We’d start with an open question, figure out how to formulate the problem, come up with a plan to test our hypothesis, and then work through different solutions. I no longer wanted to be get an MBA, I wanted to get a PhD and become a professor. But, I didn’t want to get a PhD in CS, I wanted to use my computational skills to solve science problems.
That’s when I was introduced to Dr. Frank Bayless who runs the Student Enrichment Office at San Francisco State. The office has various programs that allow minority students to do research and prepare them for grad school. I studied bioinformatics in the CS department which helped solidified the research I was interested in. From there, I applied and went to grad school at the University of California San Francisco (UCSF) to the Biomedical Informatics program, which had a strong biophysics and bioinformatics focus. Having been formally trained in CS, I needed to catch up as best as I could on biology, biochemistry, chemistry, cell biology, and pharmacology so that I would be successful throughout my graduate studies. It was a daunting task, but I was able to do it!
At UCSF, I did lab rotations where I developed computational methods to study enzymes, researched the genetics of Latino/African American populations, implemented a system to study the structure of RNA, analyzed malaria messenger RNA, and developed methods for predicting the side effects of small molecule therapeutics.
I decided to join the lab of Dr. Ajay Jain where I developed computation methods which combined the positive and negative effects of drugs with their 3D molecular structure to predict interactions with proteins that can lead to undesired side effects. I learned so much from my advisor and I feel grateful that I was able to work with him during my graduate school career.
With my graduate work completed, data science had emerged as a field where individuals like myself who are trained as scientists can have an impact solving real-world problems and building data products. Now, I am part of the founding team at an artificial intelligence company called Primer. My role has changed quite a bit from data science software engineer, to technical lead, and now manager. It has been an amazing experience building technology from scratch. It very much feels like doing research, except the product is not a research paper but a piece of technology.
Some of the things that are valued in academia – communication, mentoring, research – can be satisfied in industry. Evolving and changing one’s mind about a career path is normal and it is good to be flexible. Building technology from scratch has allowed me find innovative solutions to difficult problems and, as the company grows, I am taking more of a management role which has allowed me to mentor other team members. Appropriate training should be provided to grad students who want to persue careers outside of academia. A lot of progress has been made at universities, but there is more work to be done.
For me, it’s fulfilling to be part of a field that brings all my strengths and interests together. I have seen how my persistence and determination has continued to pay off! One thing I’ve learned is that your learning is up to you. The teachers and professors are there to teach you, but at the end it is your responsibility. I was in an university setting for 14 years (undergrad, Masters, and PhD), but at the end of the day, I achieved my goal of getting a PhD and no one can take away from me.