Molly Schmidt is working towards her masters in computational neuroscience at MIT. She is also interning at the biotechnology start-up, Relay Therapeutics.
1. In layman’s terms, explain what you do.
At Relay, a biotechnology startup, I work on machine learning on crystal structures. We do this to try to predict the IC50, or the activity, of the structures. This helps us assess how useful the structures would be in imaging proteins.
At MIT, I am a master’s student, I have one more semester to go! My thesis is on adding new functions to a program that helps analyze proteins I built a few years ago. I am studying disordered proteins, so they don’t have one structure, they have a whole ensemble of structures. We are trying to use small angle x-ray scattering data to assign probabilities to each of the structures. From that information, you can choose which protein structures you want to study.
2. Why did you choose to become a computational biologist?
My grandmothers were afflicted with Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s. They had a pretty rough time. Those factors lead me to think about neuroscience, studying brains and maybe helping to cure or manage the symptoms of these terrible diseases better. The thing is Parkinson’s can lead to dementia. In one of my grandmothers, it did. This was not the happy dementia where you go to La-La-Land, she started seeing things like giant insects crawling on her walls or people rioting in her home. She was very distressed for the last few years of her life. Because of this, I wanted to study brains and hopefully help cure or manage the symptoms of these horrible diseases.
Initially, I thought I would get there by studying neuroscience. I had been interested in it after a class I’d taken in high school. I changed my mind. I took a programming class, and I really liked it. I think that was mostly because I saw the power of computation, and how it could automate so many of the things I wanted to do. I also did not like the wet lab portion of biology very much. I actually changed my major to computational biology one week after declaring it as neuroscience! I was looking for summer jobs and contacted lots of neuroscience professors. I was offered projects involving taking MRI scans of people, or doing things to mice to understand how we think and how we learn. That wasn’t really what I wanted to do. Around that time, I found an article on an MIT news website about some research done in Collin Stultz’s lab, the lab I am completing my masters with, about Parkinson’s. I knew immediately that that was exactly what I wanted to study. I went to talk to one of his grad students who was really enthusiastic about disordered proteins, the work they were doing with them, why they were hard to study and why computation was useful. I was hooked, and decided to change my major, and get involved with that lab’s research. Computational biology allowed me to pursue what I really wanted to, identifying causes and symptoms neurological diseases, and how to fix them.
3. What is your favorite aspect of your job?
At Relay, I’m liking the fast pace. With my current project, we never run out of ideas and possibilities to try, and because everything runs so quickly, we can try all of it. It is exciting, and the people here are super great.
For my masters at MIT, I like that I really own the project. It exists mostly because two years ago I made a program that helps analyze proteins. While we are incorporating a program a Ph.D. student before me created, I feel like the project exists because of me.
4. What is the most challenging aspect of your job?
Taking a step back and thinking through each step is a challenge at Relay. Because there are so many possibilities and possible solutions to try and they are so easy to execute, it is hard to stop yourself from getting overexcited, going too quickly, and making logical leaps, or mistakes.
As for my masters, I think the biggest challenge is keeping myself on track with my thesis. It can sometimes get difficult to balance classes, and TA-ing, and working on my thesis. The thesis doesn’t have any deadlines until I have to submit it at the end of the one and a half years of my masters. You really have to self-police and stay on top of it or it is really easy to fall behind.
5. What does being a computational biologist mean to you?
Possibility and opportunity. There are so many places I could take it. It is definitely a really happening field right now. There is a lot of growth, a lot if new companies sprouting up. There are so many new ideas and technologies that enable us to try new techniques and ways of approaching problems. There is such a vast space of problems that we can work on too, from cancer to brain disease to HIV.
6. What roadblocks have you faced on your path to where you are today?
Growing up I thought I was going to be a professional ballerina. Looking back, I am glad I was road blocked. The studio I danced at closed, and since I was in Montana, there were no other studios nearby. I was always going to go to college but I think that being aware that maybe I wouldn’t be a dancer changed where I thought I would go to college. I do not know if I would have ended up at MIT if the studio had stayed open.
I have also found finding jobs challenging. For me, when work and extracurricular commitments pile up, it is easy to only think about what is due immediately, and forget about longer-term goals, like finding a summer job. For me, this has led to some interesting positions in research labs, and at startups; but it is important to note that bigger companies have much earlier hiring cycles than startups or labs.
7. What has been your greatest achievement in your career?
Either the programs I worked on in the lab at MIT or what I’m working on right now in Relay. In my lab at MIT, I have made the program underlying a website someone else made and the website for a program that somebody else made. Both are great tools for analyzing, and understanding disordered proteins, and are completely open for anyone, from high school students to researchers, to use. I am proud that these programs benefit more than just me and my education. The work I am doing at Relay has been getting pretty good results so far. It is looking pretty promising. That is really exciting as it could actually have really direct impacts on patients’ lives.
8. What do you believe is the most important thing for girls to know before pursuing STEM at college?
You can do it. If you see something you want to do, don’t let anything dumb stand in your way.
10. How do you think your field will change in 10 years?
It is going to be exciting. Computational biology is a hot topic. It is going in a bunch of different directions, there will be better hardware, better software, better lab equipment. I think people are starting to figure out how to use machine learning in more contexts, and that could get really big in the next few years. I also see a lot of new companies springing up.
11. What problem would you like to see solved by STEM in the next 10 years?
My pet project is always Parkinson’s; it is the one I feel like I have a vengeance for! That would be really cool. We still do not know whether some hallmarks of Parkinson’s are causes or symptoms. One example is these clusters of proteins in Parkinson’s patients’ brains, we do not know if they are causing problems, or a result of other problems. It would be exciting if we made any progress there.
12. What motivates you?
Actually, a lot of things motivate me. My grandmothers motivate me to keep looking for cures for Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s. I think a lot of it comes from myself. I want to improve my skills and abilities. Wanting to learn about various things plays a part. Being really active is helpful. When I am working, I like doing fast paced work with lots of deadlines, and a real impact. Making myself and my family proud is always fun. Working with other people who are excited is motivating. I am for a good career with good pay and good benefits too.
13. How do you define success?
It definitely comes in a lot of forms. It all boils down to "well you tried". If you are trying to do something, if it works, that is great; but if it doesn’t work that’s is also great as you also learned something. I think that either way, the fact that you tried something, and that you did your best and it has lead you forwards.
14. What one discovery in science do you most admire and why?
I feel like our world is a conglomeration of so so many discoveries that people have made over thousands of years. It is hard to point to just one discovery as the one I think is the best. I think there is a ton of stuff that I don’t even know about. The big ones that came to mind were vaccines, the structure of DNA and the Human Genome Project. Those ones really line up with my interests in health. I will say, I do not know how people managed without Air Conditioning!
15. What one book do you recommend everyone read, and why?
Warbreaker by Brandon Sanderson. He is hands down my favorite author, and this is my favorite book he wrote. It is a fantasy novel about magical princesses with color changing hair. Sanderson writes really good strong female protagonists who are really smart, really clever and really strong. The books in general lots of action, adventure, excitement, mystery, plot twists, an excellent magic system and a cute romance. It is an all around very satisfying read!
16. What is the best piece of advice you have received?
I have two.
The first one comes from my Dad. His advice is, “whenever something isn’t working, or you aren’t completely satisfied, make an adjustment”. It sounds so simple. The phrasing of “make an adjustment”, to me, means that maybe it doesn’t have to be a huge thing, maybe it is just something minor that you need to tweak. Maybe it can be a huge thing and you have to take a different path. What really stands out to me is that there is always something that you can do if you are unhappy or unsatisfied. If there is something that you want to do or get that you aren’t doing or getting, make an adjustment.
The other piece of advice comes from both my parents. When I was younger my parents sat my sister and me down and told us “be happy, be healthy, be successful.” We had a big discussion about why each one was important, and how we could do each of them. I still live by this advice.
17. If you could go back in time what advice would you give your high school self?
Be patient. High school me was pretty on top of things, but near the end of senior year, I got a bit bored. I started doing some pretty stupid things just because I was bored and couldn’t wait to get to college. Be patient, everything will get there, everything will work out, you can do whatever you want to.
18. How would you say your gender has impacted your experience as a computational biologist?
I have never noticed many gender issues at MIT. I’ve heard other people have had some. Either I haven’t faced them, or I haven’t noticed!
19. What would you say are the top three skills needed to be a successful computational biologist?
20. What question did I not ask you that you want to answer and share with the readers?
Be true to yourself. Be who you want to be, do what you want to do. Find out the things you like and feel satisfying to you. It is fine to get advice from other people but don’t let other people make your hard decisions for you. Don’t live up to someone else’s standards, you can set your own. If there is something you want to do don’t let anyone get in your way.
If you have any other questions feel free to contacct Molly here email@example.com