Bio_Info REU Day 1


Monday I found myself in a conference room on the tenth floor of the Life Sciences building, listening to my post-doc advisor explain his most recent project. Hundreds of issues of Nature and Science covered the bookshelves, and a wall of windows overlooked the Charles, Harvard, MIT, and the “infamous CITGO sign.”


10th Floor LSEB

My post-doc said something that I was acutely aware was meant to be a joke. The biology reference went over my head, but I pretended to laugh anyway to ease the awkward.

I took notes while he was talking to me, but most of them consisted of things I was too embarrassed to ask about:

  • What does SSN stand for?
    sequence similarity network, not social security number
  • What’s the workflow?
    the order in which you run big programs? sort of?
  • What does “PI” stand for?
    principle investigator, aka the head of the lab. not 3.14159

I only have a NYS 10th-grade knowledge of biology. Yet this is the second time I’ve decided for some reason to join a bioinformatics research group.

For both projects, the first day has been the same: someone with a PhD in a biology-related field explains to me what they are working on while I try to keep my brain from exploding. It always makes me wonder why I’m doing what I’m doing.

Last fall, on the first day I met the Hungarian neuroscientists, for example, I spent the entire 2-hour research meeting thinking they were studying this phenomenon called SHARK wave ripples instead of SHARP wave ripples. I thought that was cute, and totally saw the resemblance between the SWR pattern and a shark fin in the ocean:

Drawing Space II (1)

(to be fair, their Hungarian accent was really thick)
These kinds of experiences make me worry that I don’t belong here, that I’m not going to be able to help with the project, that I will be annoyingly slow– IMPOSTOR syndrome.
I try to remember that this is an REU and the point of it is for me to learn. I’ve already been handed a textbook and five papers to read through! That should be a start!

A RES Experience


On a whim, I joined a RES group here at BSM. I wasn’t planning to be in a research class– I considered it but was entirely daunted by the task. Yet somehow I ended up in the bioinformatics research group for the term…

And, although I absolutely love it, the RES class is definitely daunting. Our first real assignment was due last Thursday; we were told to give a fifteen minute presentation explaining the research question and goals in place of that week’s colloquium. Cue a lecture hall including the students who are giving presentations, the professors whose research topics are being presented by well-intentioned students, and a few extras who wanted to watch it all happen. Throw in some Hungarian cheesy biscuits, chocolate cookies, and fizzy water at the front of the room to snack on and you have the idea.

The presentation was essentially asking us in our small groups to give a fifteen minute presentation on an open mathematical question, on a subject we had known nothing about two weeks before, to a room-full of people, in front of the professor who came up with the question and could give the presentation better with his eyes closed. It was terrifying. My research partner and I were told afterward that we did “OK-ish” and I was fully satisfied with that result.

The event was really intense, but also totally fascinating to me. Interruptions from professors in the middle of presentations may or may not have (hint: they did) included things like:

–I can’t hear you because you are talking into the wall. I also can’t read your handwriting. Therefore I have no idea what you are saying.

–I do not know what g is. You did not label g. What is g? Is it a set, a polynomial, an integer, what?

–Can you put the title on the board? I do not know what you are talking about. You’re mumbling.

–You should have practiced with the Powerpoint clicker first. That is very distracting.

Whenever a mistake was made, professors in the back would have side conversations to clarify for each other. Students would make mistakes on the board because they were trying to give equations from memory, then their research professor would correct it for them from the back. You could tell each RES professor wanted their student to do well and get it right, in part because they were being judged by how well we were doing. The research questions were being introduced to some of the other professors for the first time by us, their students. So their ideas were being judged in whatever form we were presenting them. It had to be right.

During the Q&A for me and my partner, we were asked what results we expected by the end of the semester. My honest idea was I don’t know!! Ask my professor what he thinks we will find at the end of the semester! I gave my best shot at an answer, watching my bio professor’s face the entire time for any signal of agreement or disagreement.

The colloquium was somewhat painful to watch. Part of the assignment was to sit in the audience and observe each other flounder at the board. We wanted each other to succeed!

It was rough going.
Thankfully, there were cookies.