Transitioning from a PhD in Computational Biology to developing software

Interview by Wendy Tindsley

An interview with Andrea Martinez Vernon, Computational Biologist at Aigenpulse

At Aigenpulse we are proud that we attract the best talent on the market. Whilst this often takes the form of established hires, i.e. those who have worked in the industry for a number of years, we also heavily rely on bringing in talent straight from academia. These recruits will have very strong credentials, not to mention the right cultural fit and attitude. However, these recruits will also relish the opportunity to grow their skills, expertise and experiences – exactly what we offer newly-minted grads here at Aigenpulse. Andrea Martinez Vernon was just such a candidate as she had a perfect mix of skills that she had attained at University, with just exactly the right attitude and hunger to learn. Andrea has been with Aigenpulse for 6 months now and is already contributing significantly to the team in many ways. 

We were interested to find out how she found the transition from Academia to a pretty full-on software engineering role! 

What is your background? 

I am from Mexico and I did my first degree there in Biotechnology. Then I moved to Warwick, where I did a Systems Biology Masters and then I stayed on to do my PhD.  My PhD was focused on tool development and I did combination of computational biology and experimental wet lab work.  

What made your degree relevant for Aigenpulse? 

During my PhD, I had to create a framework to data mine a massive encyclopaedia of biological databases. There was a lot of information, but it spanned multiple databases. It was accessed via a web interface and searching it was a bit clumsy. I was interested in looking at large and diverse sets of data. We had access to the database files, but by the time that I had had to write a fourth function to read a different one of the files I thought “this is silly because I’m having to do the same thing over and over again”. So that’s why I decided to create a tool with some visualisations and off-the-shelf analysis so that other people could use it. This ended up being the biggest part of my PhD! 

Did you have any commercial experience before you came to Aigenpulse? 

I did an internship at a very small liquor company that made artisanal liquors and distilled alcohols. Since it was such a small company, not only worked on the biotechnology side but was involved in a bit of everything as well, from monitoring the fermentation and being involved in the bottling to marketing. I also helped with sales, because it was on the West Coast of Mexico and we would receive groups from cruise ships, so I would take them on a tour and into the shop! 

So, your first big transition was from Mexico to the UK? 

Moving countries & continents was quite easy as I had travelled a lot beforehand and lived overseas.  However, I found the hardest adjustment from Mexico to the UK was getting used to the education system, as it is quite different. In Mexico, we don’t really write essays, but there was a lot of essay writing and I found that expectations are higher here.   

You finished your PhD after you had started at Aigenpulse, tell me about that? 

I had submitted my PhD and had my viva exactly a week before I started working at Aigenpulse. So, that was tough, timing-wise; I had to move locations straight after the viva and just before starting work here. Because of my visa constraints, I was only able to work part-time, which actually worked out well, because it gave me time to adjust to a new environment while allowing me to concentrate on my PhD corrections – Tracy and the HR team were great at supporting me through this time.  Once my PhD was fully submitted and printed, I could apply for a full visa, which allowed me to work full-time.  The visa was granted as part of the Doctorate Extension Scheme, which enables students who complete a PhD at a UK institution to extend their visa in order to have more time to find work with an employer, set up as an entrepreneur or gain work experience in their field. 

Why did you apply to Aigenpulse? 

After my PhD, I liked the idea of relating different data types, because I had direct experience of how difficult it is. However, I didn’t want to lose touch with biology. I thought Aigenpulse was really cool because they are working with different customers to find a way of integrating their data into a system that brings all of the data together, allowing them to do whatever analysis they want to. I could see a lot of scope for growth for myself in terms of learning, but at the same time using what I’ve learned as well to help develop the analysis the customers were interested in 

Just over six months ago, you were a full-time student and now you’re working full-time.  How was that transition? 

For me, the hardest transition has been social. I’m still in touch with my Warwick friends, but obviously, I’ve had to move location, so I’m still in the process of making new friends here but my new colleagues have made me feel especially welcome.  However, there are so many social apps and meetups etc to help. Also, student facilities aren’t on tap, so, for example, I started doing exercise classes instead of joining a gym. I have started cycling (thanks to the Cycle to Work Scheme) to the office to get some more exercise and have joined the local rowing team! 

At University you were part of a community, with a supervisor.  What changes have you noticed working in a busy software team? 

Here it is very much a team. I think that’s been the biggest change in terms of how I work, but it’s been quite nice.  We have our morning stand-ups, we all sit together, and the technical team is quite diverse. Everyone is an expert in their field, so if I get stuck there’s always someone to ask for help. Everyone has been good at helping me out; pointing out things I need to learn or showing me things. They’re all friendly and patient and willing to teach me. But it’s been great to be able to explain science to the non-scientists and impact the product development since day one – there’s very little hierarchy and the best ideas win!

Is your learning curve still really steep?  

It’s definitely getting a lot easier. But the first couple of months were very steep because there was a lot I needed to work on. First of all, I had to learn how to code in Python, which I’m still learning, because originally, I coded in R.  You can transition between languages, but there’s a gap where you’re still learning. Then I’ve had to get my head around the infrastructure such as Django and all of the data models; how it works and how things are related. And then because I’m also involved in the full scope of the platform, I’ve done things on the back-end, which is challenging in itself, and also on the front-end and so, I’ve learned a little bit about a lot of things.  I’ve learnt all this in a small space of time so it that’s been good. 

Another difference is that at Aigenpulse, we operate our software development using the AGILE scrum methodology which is a world apart from academia. It’s quite clear cut as to which task you need to be working on. The big end goal is subdivided into smaller tasks, which actually aligns nicely with how I like to work, because I like to have a very clear definition of what I’m doing, otherwise it’s very easy to get lost in a sea of possibilities!! 

What have you enjoyed so far? 

I’ve enjoyed learning and I have quite a varied role because I’m also involved in the sales and marketing side of things as well as the product and technical work. So, I’m learning a lot about many different things and I think that is the advantage of working at a start-up. It’s a great opportunity to learn about the different aspects. Maybe in future, I will focus on one of aspect or I may just continue doing a bit of everything! 

What are you looking forward to? 

I would like to engage more with customers and potential users to get feedback and suggestions because I’m still learning about how users would use our products and I think that keeping that in mind will just make our product a lot stronger.