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Fifteen undergraduate students from the University of Connecticut McNair Scholars program engaged with Northeastern University over Zoom to learn more about Northeastern’s Master’s and PhD programs. The students had the opportunity to speak with students, faculty, and staff representing various STEM disciplines including biology, computer science, mechanical & industrial engineering, chemical engineering, psychology, bioinformatics, biotechnology, cybersecurity, civil & environmental engineering, and marine & environmental sciences.
The McNair Scholars program is one of eight of the US Department of Education-funded TRIO programs. The program is named after Ronald E. McNair, a NASA astronaut and physicist who died in the Challenger disaster in 1986. Prior to his death, he was the second African American to fly in space when he flew as a mission specialist on STS-41-B in 1984. TRIO programs are open to low-income, first-generation undergraduate students, and individuals from underrepresented populations. At UConn, McNair Scholars have a faculty mentor, conduct and present research, and participate in workshops, seminars, and conferences to help them achieve an advanced degree.
The students were able to seek advice on the admissions process, interview weekend, research funding, life on campus and in Boston, and the University’s diversity initiatives and support systems. Unfortunately, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, students were unable to tour research facilities and the campus in person as previous cohorts of McNair Scholars have been able to do in the past, but Northeastern hopes to welcome McNair Scholars from UConn and across the country as visitors and incoming Master’s and PhD students in the future.
Alumna Delia Mocanu is a double husky and 2014 PhD recipient in Physics. During her time at Northeastern, she developed a passion for network science, working on data projects with incredible scale. Now at Facebook, she finds herself working on one of the largest data systems in history— News Feed.
She participated in a written engagement with the Northeastern COS on going industry, why epidemiology works better in the dark, and the most important skill to succeed in data science.
Growing up, did you find that you were interested in physics? Or did that interest develop later in life?
I grew up in Romania and I did not like Physics much at the time because it was too formulaic. In a weird twist of events, as a freshman in college here in the US, I actually switched from Chemical Engineering to Physics/Math double major..
At some point I realized that Physics made a lot of sense for me and I just enjoyed pure science more than engineering. I liked the rush of solving problems from scratch.
I jumped around a bit until I landed on what I wanted to do. I was originally curious about Astroparticle Physics and I wanted to know everything about how the universe worked. During my first year at NEU, it became clear that I was seeking something more fast-paced. [The irony is not lost on me, this was very antithetical to why I switched from Engineering to Physics four years earlier.]
At Northeastern, seeing the kind of work Barabasi and Vespignani were doing, I immediately recognized that this interdisciplinary field (Network Science/Complex Systems) was more aligned to my existing interests and personal values.
Is there anything that stands out about your graduate/Phd experience?
My advisor really emphasized the idea of ownership, and I liked that we were held to very high standards. Looking back at it now, I always felt like what I was putting my time in truly mattered. Prof. Vespignani was very good at instilling energy to the group.
Did your experience working in Professor Vespignani’s MOBS Lab and other research facilities shape your career decisions?
Absolutely. What I cherish about this PhD experience is that we felt very plugged in; we had well funded projects that were designed to solve real problems, in real time.
We loved doing something that mattered. I was simultaneously learning something and solving a problem involving millions of people. Little did I know I was going to reach billions later.
You’re currently working at Facebook as a Data Scientist. What does your current role entail?
I work in News Feed, and I’ve been here since I started at Facebook. What makes this role especially stimulating is building solutions that work at scale. I still very much rely on the thought processes and models of the world that I adopted during my PhD. Right now, I couldn’t imagine a better place to apply these.
However, my favorite part of my job is actually identifying opportunities. When I find something worth investing in, I put all my energy into making it a reality. That last part is the most rewarding and it is really more about general problem solving than it is about any specific math/engineering skill.
Have you spoken to friends or colleagues about Professor Vespignani’s COVID-19 models and what they are trying to accomplish? Has it been a source of pride, frustration, or a little of both?
To my friends mostly, yes. I touched epidemiology models a bit during grad school. At the time I remember thinking ‘I hope this software makes a difference someday,’ but I never thought we’d see something like this. Healthy skepticism is good, but I’m quite surprised to see the amount of pushback against these predictions at large, so I would say this has caused a bit of frustration.
Frankly, epidemiology is best when you don’t know that it exists and when the predictions don’t come true. Otherwise, it is not too dissimilar from weather forecasting; every modeling exercise comes with error bars, but one can tell the difference between a major hurricane and a light summer rain. However, in epidemiology you ‘can’ actually turn the would-be hurricane into a light summer rain. Taking action invalidates the original prediction, that’s really the goal. Whereas if your predictions come true, you have failed; that’s the curse of this field.
Computational epidemiology has advanced so much in the past two decades, that it’s quite challenging to establish a common language even with other highly technical folks.
What do you find most rewarding about data science?
It’s the most rewarding job you can possibly imagine. It’s always changing and you are constantly learning new things or building new tools so that you can iterate faster.
It’s not just about the act of doing the analysis, but more about where the data fits. A lot of data science is problem solving, which is what I liked about Physics in the first place. You don’t have a solution and no one has ever solved this problem before. There are no instructions and every single day feels like a journey. That dynamic aspect is very important to me.
What was the most important thing you learned at Northeastern?
Professor Vespignani wanted nothing short of perfection. He would sometimes ask you to iterate on the same chart a dozen times before it felt right. It’s about communicating this data in the best way possible. If I have to repeat the same steps several times before I get it right, then I do it, and I think it’s worth it. As a result, I do notice when others take shortcuts.
I can’t stress this enough: the analysis is not an end in itself.
Is there advice you would give to students who are interested in this field or the type of work you’re doing now?
Don’t be afraid of change, your interests will continue to evolve over time. Look at your PhD program as a time in your life to discover what you like doing and work with your advisor through that process, as they should guide you in making the most out of your career.
Your goal in academia is to publish papers and advance knowledge, while you may not necessarily implement them right away, and that’s ok. If you choose the industry path, your focus will be on the application itself. The optimal mathematical solution may need a 20-fold simplification so that you can enable the rest of the team to be part of it.
Anything else you’d like to add?
I do want to acknowledge the fact that Northeastern did an incredible job bringing professors from other universities and building great research programs, and not just in network science.
It’s incredible. I do think that I was very lucky to be part of Northeastern because that sort of environment so focused on research is very, very important. I really loved it.
ASBMB Chapter President Evan Mun and Vice President Julian Amirault made their final year before graduation count, filling it with a variety of professional development and social activities for the benefit of students with a true passion or even just a budding curiosity for biochemistry and molecular biology. The American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology (ASBMB) recently recognized them for their efforts, awarding the Chapter the ‘Outstanding Chapter of the Year’ honor. There are about 120 Chapters nationally, and the Chapter had last received the designation in 2016.
In order to successfully pull off their many achievements, the two needed to work hand in hand with the rest of their executive board, consisting of Ariella Bourdeau, Anders Lindberg, Kathleen Merritt, and Jared Subiono. One of their most complex events of the academic year involved hosting the ASBMB Northeast Regional Meeting, which was attended on NU campus in November 2019 by approximately 100 undergraduate attendees from 14 different schools, and included a poster competition with judges from 14 different institutions. Members of the Roxbury Community College Chapter, which is their Minority-Serving Institution ASBMB partner Chapter, were also very important in organizing and executing the event successfully. The NU students were able to take advantage of their experience from the past, having successfully hosted the event the four previous years.
The ‘Outstanding Chapter’ award also recognized the Chapter’s commitment to organizing a diverse set of group activities, as well as the individual excellence within the Chapter’s 140+ members. Their faculty advisor, Prof. Kirsten Fertuck, is confident that this fall their new president, Ariella Bourdeau will continue the strong tradition of the Chapter, with many new ideas for the coming year.
What motivated you to pursue a PlusOne master’s degree?
I joined Northeastern in the biochemistry program on a 5-year, 3-co-op plan. I already had an interest in bioinformatics, but the Bioinformatics PlusOne program had not been approved yet. During my third year, I wanted to learn more technical skills, so I briefly switched to the “Biology and Computer Science” combined program.By the beginning of my fourth year, I learned that the Bioinformatics PlusOne had been approved. I also learned that I could finish the BS Biology/MS Bioinformatics PlusOne in the same amount of time and credits as my 5-year undergraduate program.
My choice to join the program came after consultation with a variety of members of the faculty and staff. Professor Steve Vollmer initially told me about the program, and I also received thoughtful advice and guidance from Professors Veronica Godoy-Carter and Erin Cram, academic advisors Amy Carmack and Mark Bresnihan, and program assistant Melisa Brown, among others.
Can you tell me about your overall experience as a participant in the PlusOne program?
The two biggest benefits for me were in teaching and co-op. I spent my PlusOne year as a TA for BINF6308 and BINF6309, the two core introductory courses in the Bioinformatics curriculum. As a graduate TA, I was given much more independence and responsibility than as an undergraduate TA. I felt really lucky to be able to practice teaching and curriculum development, and that experience solidified my interest in continuing to teach after finishing the program.
I also completed a 6-month co-op through the PlusOne program, where I worked as a student in the Silver Lab at Harvard Medical School. In the Silver Lab, I was given a lot more freedom and independence as a graduate student than as an undergraduate. My experience during my co-op helped to convince me that I was ready to join a Ph.D. program and further develop my ability to conduct research independently.
Would you recommend PlusOne to other students?
For me, the PlusOne program was a relatively clear choice because it took the same amount of time and money as a 5-year undergraduate degree program. Since I knew that I was interested in Bioinformatics (and not, for example, software development), and there was no undergraduate Bioinformatics program, the PlusOne program also meshed very well with my academic and professional interests.
Other students may have a more complex decision to make, especially since the PlusOne program usually requires additional tuition costs. In broad terms, the PlusOne Bioinformatics program is likely a good investment for students looking to immediately join the workforce as bioinformaticians. Students who prefer software development or intend to complete a Ph.D. are less likely to benefit from the program. I highly recommend that any student considering the program weigh their options carefully with help from family, academic advisors, and faculty mentors.
How did PlusOne and COS help shape your interests and/or prepare you for your future?
COS as a whole has played a huge role in shaping my interests and plans.
My research in COS, advised by Professor Javier Apfeld and supported by the Honors Program and Undergraduate Office of Research and Fellowships, was undoubtedly the activity that had the largest impact on my interests and future. In conjunction, advice and mentorship that I received from faculty and staff like Professors Sue Powers-Lee, Erin Cram, and Veronica Godoy-Carter (to name just a few), academic advisors like Danielle Massey, and my friends and classmates were invaluable.
The PlusOne program itself also helped to shape my interests. It gave me a year to focus on my skills in bioinformatics and computational biology and to hone my specific research interests before beginning my Ph.D. Through the program, I spent a year splitting my time between learning, teaching, and conducting research, which helped convince me that I would be comfortable continuing to learn, teach, and conduct research during my Ph.D. and beyond.
What do you plan on doing post-graduation?
Right now (Summer 2020), I am working as a software engineering intern for the R Project for Statistical Computing (funded by Google Summer of Code). In the fall, I will join the Biology Ph.D. program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. I hope to continue teaching and conducting increasingly-independent research professionally.
Best of luck in your future endeavors, Julian, from everyone at the College of Science! We can’t wait to see what you accomplish next.