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April 17, 2020

Role Model: Data Scientist

Agata Piekut by Agata

Ilona Grabowicz, a biotechnologist turned data scientist, shares with us her IT story

You’re a data scientist but you didn’t finish IT studies. Could you share with us your professional journey?
Sure! I’m a biotechnologist by training. I did my Biotechnology engineer degree at SGGW in Warsaw. During these studies I went on an Erasmus exchange to Wageningen in the Netherlands. That was an absolutely awesome and eye-opening experience! I liked it so much there that I decided to stay there for longer and I did my Master degree there – also in Biotechnology. Right after studies I was amazed by algae and was lucky enough to find a job in a startup company growing algae in the neighboring town. I was working there in the wet-lab performing experiments and up-scaling the results to the production.

After working there for a year I switched to another company, also a start-up, where I was doing a mixture of wet-lab experiments and building chemometric models in the computer. Back then I didn’t know programming and I was just using clickable software. That was my first encounter with building statistical models. After a year of working there I felt that I cannot grow anymore and I started to feel more and more nostalgic about going back to Warsaw – my hometown in Poland. Besides, I wanted to switch to computer work (wet lab work was too repetitive for me), learn bioinformatics and I got fascinated by the topic of microbiomes.

I made an extensive search on the internet and asked friends from my studies whether they knew some interesting bioinformatician in Warsaw. After that I wrote emails to two of the ‘candidates’ and during a visit in Warsaw I met with Bartek Wilczyński from the Mathematics department of the Warsaw University. Afterwards we both decided that we want to collaborate and I started working there as a Scientific Assistant with the aim of making a PhD and Bartek who is the Principal Investigator of the Computational Biology group at the University became my supervisor.

During the first year I made first attempts to analyse the microarray gene expression data, but I was mainly learning. I followed several courses given at the Mathematics department, such as: Introduction to Informatics (programming in python), Statistical Data Analysis (2 courses), Analysis of Genomic Data (programming in R), Data visualisation in R, etc. Python was the first programming language which I’ve learned and I have learned it on a university course. R – another programming language – I’ve learned on the fly, while learning other subjects.

The biggest challenge for me was to learn the first language and with the next one it was already much easier. During my PhD I also got involved in a bioinformatic project at the Institute of Computer Science also at the Computational Biology group where I was investigating mechanisms leading to development of brain cancer.

After a few years of working in academia in Poland I decided to try something else and pursue a further career in a business setting. Bioinformatics is a specialized branch of Data Science, thus in fact while doing a PhD in bioinformatics I also became a Data Scientist.

Therefore I can say that I didn’t make an abrupt change in my career path but it was a rather step-wise journey from biotechnology towards data science. I’m sure this can be possible also with other specializations, including the social sciences.

How did you start learning to program with data science projects in mind?
To be honest I didn’t have a plan to become a data scientist. I wanted to become a bioinformatician, what I have successfully accomplished. In 2019 unfortunately there were not many well-paid bioinformatics jobs in Warsaw and I didn’t want to move to another city therefore I decided to switch to the more ‘general’ data science.

Which online resources would you recommend?
In my experience the offer of online courses is changing quite fast. I used Coursera some years ago and it was free to follow the course, but currently for the majority of the courses one needs to pay. Recently, I have used DataCamp (also paid) and I was very satisfied with their courses. Moreover there is for example a nice platform with exercises in python for bioinformatics Rosalind Project. To start learning the first programming language I recommend having a real person to whom one could ask questions.

Python or R? Which programming language would you recommend to those who’d like to start in data science?
Both. Recently I was looking for a new job and among the Data Scientist job offers I saw that usually both of them were mentioned in the job requirements. However, during the job interviews it often appeared that in the majority of companies they prefer just one of them. In my experience python is slightly more popular among employers. Both python and R have very extensive repositories of data science libraries and also for both of them there are very big users communities therefore for almost any problem one could think of there can be a solution found on the Stackoverflow.

What was your biggest challenge and how did you overcome it?
For me, challenging was the beginning of learning programming. I even didn’t realize that the errors that pop out when trying to run my scripts could be googled and this way I could search for solutions. Also, I was ashamed to ask so many questions to my colleagues – other PhD students working in the same room at the university, but eventually I had to as it was saving me a lot of time. With more experience, everything becomes much easier.
Right now the biggest challenge I’m facing is the lack of physical activity as my work requires sitting in front of the computer for many hours.

What’s next? What are your further plans to learn or specialize in?
That’s a good question. I’m not sure yet. I will see what the future brings 🙂 In the end plans are one thing and the reality another one 😉

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