How I Became a Computational Biologist

How I Became a Computational Biologist

By Elena Giorgi, PhD

We have a guest post from Dr Elena Giorgi as part of our Role Models series. Elena describes how she became a computational biologist, and how she successfully dealt with two common problems in science; constant geographical flux and the ‘two body problem’.

Dr Elena Giorgi, Computational Biologist

As the daughter of a developmental biologist, growing up, I shared the house with fruit flies, newts, stick insects, and toads. And, as paradoxical as it may sound, I wanted nothing to do with biology. I majored in theoretical mathematics and I went on to graduate school determined to study differential topology—one of the most abstract branches of math.

Math is pure and beautiful. It’s like a Michelangelo painting—perfect all around. You can’t be wrong when you follow the steps dictated by logic.

I was accepted into graduate school in the U.S., and my husband arranged to finish his Ph.D. 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.

Graduate school was fun, except I soon 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… It’s like getting lost in one of Dr. Seuss’s pictures. Oh, the thinks you can think…Yes you can, but… do you want to? (I bet a lot of mathematicians are frowning at me right now.)

So, when my husband got a postdoc in Vienna, Austria, we packed everything 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 typing late into the night with a baby wrapped around my neck. Well, sort of 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. I continued to do freelance writing, and even though by now I was earning a little, it definitely wasn’t enough.

I decided to go back to school. Now that I knew I wasn’t going to be a mathematician, I really wanted to become a computational biologist: the field was fairly new and growing fast. It encompassed all the cool stuff like genetics, protein folding, sequencing. And it just so happened that the University of Southern California, in downtown Los Angeles, had a computational biology program.

It was a sign from the stars.

Just in case, I also applied to the biomath program at UCLA, and the biostat program at USC. I was accepted to all three of them. They all wanted me to go visit. 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, then another, and three hours later I was at the UCLA campus, which is a whole city within a city. Never seen a campus that huge. I spent the whole day there, being escorted from one professor to another. I had no idea they would do the whole all-day “interview” thing. By the time I got home it was midnight and I was drained.

The next day I went downtown to check out the USC computational biology department. The faculty there is impressive —- gods in the field. I was very excited since this was by far my favorite program of the three, and they had offered me a scholarship. Unfortunately, the USC downtown campus is not in a charming part of town (to put it in mild terms —- I lost count of the LAPD cars parked at the perimeter of campus). And again, the commute from where I lived was going to be a killer. To make things worse, one of the aforementioned “gods” told me he had too many students already and he was gone half of the year anyways.

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!). I met the head of the department who turned out to be one of the most charming people I’ve ever met in Academics. He even invited me to listen to him play the piano every Thursday night at the Parkway Grill in Pasadena. I was offered a teaching assistantship, and I was sold. I wasn’t going to be a computational biologist, but biostatistics sounded close enough. The no-freeway thing sealed the deal. Hey, you’ve got to have priorities, right?

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. If you’re good at obfuscating things, chances are, you’re a statistician (I’m a statistician, I can say that).

I’d set off wanting to do pure math, which is perfect and beautiful, yet “perfect and beautiful” does not apply to real life. That’s why you need statistics: it will never give you a definitive answer, but it can measure uncertainties. The smaller the uncertainty, the happier you are.

So I became a biostatistician and, two years later, I started working at a medical center. By then I could handle California 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, you can’t beat the adrenaline high the morning commute down the Two-Ten gives you! (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-by Ikea. 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. We have mountains, trees, and forests, although the forests do tend to burn down every ten years or so…

In this remote part of the United States, where the horizons are endless and every night the skies bleed into vibrant sunsets, in this place that chose me rather than the other way around, I met my wonderful, amazing, gracious mentor, Bette Korber. If you are looking at STEM women that are an inspiration to all of us, Bette is definitely one of them. More than twenty years ago, she started working on an HIV vaccine because her best friend died of AIDS. She created the Los Alamos HIV database, the largest HIV sequence repository in the country. She is also one of the directors of Friends of Noah, a non-profit organization that supports AIDS orphans in South Africa. And she plays the flute and drums in a local band! Yes, she is my hero.

So now I am a postdoctoral fellow at the Theoretical Biology group of the Los Alamos National Laboratory. Besides maintaining the HIV database, our group branches out to protein folding, immunology, epigenetics, and influenza modeling and surveillance. So, after moving across continents and from one coast to the other I ended up doing exactly what I wanted: computational biology.

And I love every moment of it.

About the Author

Dr E.E. Giorgi is a postdoctoral fellow at the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico, USA. She discusses science (genetics and epigenetics in particular), writing, and photography on her blog, CHIMERAS. She is also the author of the detective thriller CHIMERAS, a modern Philip Marlowe mystery with a premise deeply rooted in epigenetics.

Connect with Elena on Google+.

One thought on “How I Became a Computational Biologist

  1. What a fascinating story. Sometimes we set off with a particular road in mind but a much better one opens up for us by serendipity. If we are open to these unexpected opportunities, wonderful things can happen, as it has for Elena. Thank-you for sharing your journey.


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