Scientist Spotlight: Alennie Roldan

7 Jun
Alennie (they/them) graduated from SFSU in 2021 and will be working as a Bioinformatics Programmer in the lab of Dr. Marina Sirota.

Pleuni: Hi Alennie, congratulations on graduating this semester! 

Alennie: Thank you! I really enjoyed my time at SFSU and I’m excited to move onto the next chapter. 

Pleuni: You told me that you are starting a job at UCSF soon. Would you mind telling me what you’ll be doing there and how you found that job? 

Alennie: I’ll be working as a Bioinformatics Programmer in the lab of Dr. Marina Sirota. The work is very in line with the interdisciplinary concepts I learned through the PINC program–– coding meets life science and health data. Prior to getting the position, I heard about an event, “NIH Diversity Supplement Virtual Matchmaking,” from the PINC and SEO mailing list. At the event, I met with many different UCSF PIs and learned about their research. I kept in contact with some of the PIs I met whose research I thought was very interesting. From there I scheduled different meetings and interviews with each PI to see if we’d be a good match. I ended up moving forward with the Sirota lab because I wanted to be involved in their research and felt that I could learn a lot from the experience. 

Pleuni: When did you start to learn coding? 

Alennie: Honestly, I feel like my first stint with coding began with Tumblr. In middle and high school I picked up some HTML to personalize my Tumblr page. It was exciting to input strange strings of numbers and letters and churn out wacky graphics. When I stopped using Tumblr I didn’t seriously pick up coding until summer 2019 for the BDSP, where I learned that there were so many different ways programming could be used. 

Pleuni: Did you always want to learn coding? 

Alennie: When I was younger, I’d watch the crime show “Criminal Minds’” with my mother. One of my favorite characters was Penelope Garcia, the show’s FBI Technical Analyst. She fills the tech-savvy role of the group and I always enjoyed seeing how she’d help solve the case by unlocking “digital secrets” or finding classified information. Based on portrayals like that, I always considered coding as an exclusive skill limited to cyber security and creating complex software. So I was always interested in coding, but the idea of learning how seemed too daunting. 

Pleuni: You did the entire PINC program – which part did you like most? Which part was frustrating? 

Alennie: I enjoyed the creative freedom of the PINC program. Many of the classes I took had final projects that encouraged us to come up with our own ideas. It was satisfying and challenging to take all that I’ve learned so far and use that knowledge to come up with my own projects. One of my favorite projects was for CSC 307: Machine Learning for Life Science Data Scientists. The goal of my group’s project was to address the lack of diversity in dermatology datasets by applying a machine-learning model that could identify various skin disorders; our dataset consisted of skin image samples from People of Color. The assignment was especially rewarding because it allowed me to combine my passion for health equity, social justice, and programming into a single project. 

The most frustrating part of the program was primarily due to the pandemic. It was difficult to communicate with my professors and classmates through a remote format. The experience sometimes felt isolating because I had been so used to seeing my mentors in-person or meeting up with classmates to work on an assignment/project. Thankfully, I had met many of the same classmates in person before switching to virtual learning so I felt like I had some familiar faces to interact with. 

Pleuni: Sometimes it looks like coding is something for only some kinds of people. There are a lot of stereotypes associated with coding. How do you feel about that? 

Alennie: This is a very good question, as there are many layers to the coder/programmer stereotype. If you were to ask people to draw a picture of a coder, the most common image you’d likely see is a lonely man furiously typing in a darkened room, hunched over in his chair and focused on screens covered with indecipherable numbers and symbols. Simply put, we often imagine a typical coder as a cisgender white man who typically exhibits loner or awkward behaviors. It’s a very narrow and negative stereotype which ultimately promotes negative connotations regarding neurodivergent individuals and excludes Women and People of Color from the narrative. 

The stereotype does little to encourage or welcome most people. But in reality, the coding community at large desperately needs a diverse range of people who can contribute their unique perspectives. Stereotypes can be discouraging and unwelcoming, so it’s important for institutions to emphasize inclusivity to show how students can be fantastic coders and still be true to their unique identities. 

…it’s important for institutions to emphasize inclusivity to show how students can be fantastic coders and still be true to their unique identities.

Pleuni: I know you are applying to medical school. Do you think it is useful for a doctor to know about computer science? 

For example, by having some knowledge in computer science a doctor could aid in the design of an app that patients can use to let them know if they’re experiencing side effects to their medication, create a website that shows local doctors who are LGBTQ+ friendly, or even better navigate electronic health records. The possibilities are endless! 

Alennie: I believe that computer science can be very useful to a physician because it can improve how they can take care of people. Since they are face-to-face with patients everyday, healthcare professionals are in a position where they can recognize and understand what unique problems need to be addressed in their communities. 

Pleuni: Do you have any tips for students who are just starting out? 

Alennie: Embrace your creativity! We often think of coding as a sterile and strict subject, but as you create new programs, websites, apps, etc you realize how much creative freedom you actually have. Learning how to code can be very daunting so when you personalize programs to fit your style or reflect things that you like, it makes the journey seem less scary and more fun. When I started coding, I had the most bare-bones of tools at my disposal, but I could still find ways to inject things to make my code feel like it belonged to me. The very first game I programmed, a basic recreation of Pong, I signed with my favorite color, pastel pink.

Alennie recreated the classic game of Pong with a little extra flair for one of their coding projects.

Pleuni: Thank you, Alennie! Please stay in touch!

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