Can you tell me about your background and how you came to work for the Allen Institute for Brain Science?
Biology and the brain have always fascinated me specifically, but my background is in chemical engineering. I was job hunting back in 2014 and I came across the Allen Institute for Brain Science, saw the work they were doing and thought I would like to be a part of it. However, I didn’t hear back from them after applying to a few jobs. I started looking for a quick program that would result in some certification I could use. I happened upon the EE fundamentals certificate and became a prospect of a MS degree after. The strong interest in biological applications among some of the EE faculty helped me make the decision to apply and enroll in the MSEE at UW Bothell. I knew Professor Chowdhury from the certificate program, and she was working on medical image processing. I ended up doing my thesis with her, and developed my knowledge of data analysis and image processing through that work. I also took a course on ultrasound, rather reluctantly, and found that Professor Mourad was specifically involved in brain research. In fact, much of the course was spent studying the neurological applications of ultrasound. Later, as I had more experience in image processing, I spent a summer term processing some images of mouse brains for Professor Mourad.
After graduating from the MSEE program I came across a Data Analyst position at the Allen Institute, seeking an MS or PhD with experience in image processing and analysis. Of particular interest was someone with familiarity analyzing 3D medical images (like CT or MRI), and exposure to images of mouse brains was a plus. Everything about the job description matched my recent experience. In fact, one of the bullet points mentioned wanting someone to help develop metrics to assess the quality of the analysis, and my MS thesis was about proposing quality metrics for CT images. Back in 2014, I was an engineer flipping burgers at Five Guys just to pay the rent. Now I’m doing exactly what I had wished I could do.
What is a typical day in the life of your position?
One of the perks of my job is that I can propose solutions to problems and spend my time investigating and implementing those solutions, rather than implement specific tasks set for me by someone else. On a typical day, I bus into Seattle and walk up to the Institute overlooking Lake Union. From then on, every day is different. Maybe I have some analysis that had been running overnight to check. Some days guest speakers visit the Institute, from various schools and institutes such as Stanford or Harvard, and discuss their latest work.
My job is to help analyze data generated by various members of a research group, so someone might email or show up to discuss a problem that needs analysis. If I have a new idea, then some of my time will be spent reading up on the relevant literature, in case someone has already addressed a similar issue. The rest of the time is spent implementing whatever analysis we’ve decided on.
When you were in the master’s program did you have a summer internship? If so, where?
I did not have an internship, but I did take the opportunity to take a special topics course with Professor Mourad. While I learned most of my fundamental data analysis and image processing skills working with Professor Chowdhury, getting to apply some of that newfound knowledge on a slightly different problem helped build my confidence and find some areas to strengthen. It also exposed me to an area of research I was interested in, the brain, and was one more factor in me landing a job at the Allen Institute.
What has been your most valuable experience at Allen Institute for Brain Science so far, and why?
One of the first tasks I was asked to help with allowed me to apply what I had learned over the last couple of years in the MSEE program, and realizing that I could actually contribute in this way was thrilling.
What can a first-year graduate student be doing to prepare themselves for a career in your field?
Find people and projects relevant to this work. Data analysis and machine learning are tools that are widely sought after these days in many fields. For my work specifically, image processing is also a must, so find someone who is involved in such things and ask to get involved. Courses that teach such topics are great, but are no substitute for hands on experience. Plan on doing a thesis, especially if you are not employed. Learning to manage a project, from start to finish, is a great skill to have. More than anything, be open to the options available. I was not interested in the Ultrasound course, because I imagined it would be about the ultrasound imaging devices or practices we are all familiar with. As it turned out, Professor Mourad was heavily involved in researching the brain, something I was very interested in. Remember that courses themselves are only part of the education. The instructors themselves have their own interests and expertise, which you should take advantage of. They can help get you some experience, which sets you apart when applying for jobs.
If you were an incoming graduate student again, what would you do in your first year to maximize your chance of breaking into your industry, field, or function?
I would take the time to develop a few technical skills that are relevant to the industry. For example, much of my image processing work at school was done using MATLAB. At work, I use some image processing libraries for python to do similar work. Transitioning was easy, as I had familiarity with python, but I could have taken the time early on to better hone those skills. Similarly, my exposure to SQL and database design was limited, but obviously such tools are essential when working with large amounts of data at a place like the Allen Institute. Looking ahead at what the current industry tools and needs are would have allowed me to better shape my skillset.