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Meet Francisca Catalan, SFSU PINC alum and research associate at UCSF (spotlight)

9 Jan

Francisca Catalan, SFSU PINC alum and research associate at UCSF

  1. How did you get into coding? 

I took a regular CS class my second year at SF state. I thought it would be a good skill to have as an aspiring researcher and saw that it fulfilled one of my major requirements. It was a PowerPoint-heavy 8 am class three times a week. I didn’t talk to anyone else in the class and by the end of the semester I found it very difficult to show up. I passed the class but was really devastated about my experience. I thought I could never learn to program, though I never gave up completely. A couple semesters went by and I saw a friendly flier announcing PINC, SFSU’s program that promotes inclusivity in computing for biologist and other non-computer science majors. I eagerly signed up and started the “Intro to Python” class soon after. Then, with some more programming under my belt, I joined Dr. Rohlfs’ lab and began doing research in the dry lab for the remainder of my undergraduate career.

  1. What kind of work do you do now? 

I currently work at UCSF as a dry lab research associate. Our lab focuses on an aggressive form of brain cancer, glioblastoma. We try to find gene targets for new drug treatments and research the cell type of these cancerous cells in order to fight drug resistance. My main duties now include creating pipelines for our single cell, RNA-Seq, and Whole Genome Sequencing data. You can read about our lab’s latest study in our new publication on cancer discovery! DOI: 10.1158/2159-8290.

  1. How did learning coding skills impact your career?

Coding has opened so many pathways for me. I was able to find a great job at UCSF soon after graduating with my Bachelor’s of Science in cell and molecular biology and minor in Computing Applications. It has also given be a giant boost of confidence! As a woman of color in STEM, I often felt underrepresented and out of place, but those feelings now quickly subside when I can help my colleagues answer coding questions! It’s motivating to feel like a necessary component of your community when often time you feel pushed out. It’s also impacted my career choices! I know now I want to be a professor in the future, I want to provide access to programming to others in hopes it will open pathways like it did for me!

  1. Do you have any advice for students who are just starting? 

Yes! Don’t give up! It can be really difficult to learn coding, but know that it’s not you, talking to a computer can just be hard sometimes! Continue practicing and ask questions, google your heart out. Take breaks when necessary, remember to breathe, and keep in mind all the amazing science you will be able to do once you have these skills under your belt!

Meet Simone Webb, Bioinformatics and Immunology PhD student

2 Dec


I am spotlighting scientists who code for my students who are learning to code in Python. Today, I’ve chatted with Simone Webb from the UK. Simone Webb is a PhD student in the group of Professor Haniffa at Newcastle University in the UK.

Pleuni: Hi Simone, how did you get into coding?

Simone: I got into coding during my undergraduate degree, where I took some compulsory statistics and intro to bioinformatics courses.

To be honest, I struggled with it a lot! These courses remain my worst grades during university. However, there was something about it that drew me to it. The maths-based logic of it all really appealed to me at a time where the bio-related content I was learning seemed a lot more uncertain and up for debate. I’m not a natural at it by any means.

I liked how it felt to get an answer correct during our tutorials and stuck with it.

By the time I got to my undergraduate thesis, I realized that my real interest lay in microbiology and bioinformatics. The projects on offer for my thesis didn’t have massive diversity in these fields, so I crossed my fingers and applied for the project led by our first-year bioinformatics tutor – I got in! From then onwards, it’s fair to say that I would always choose coding over wet lab work. My thesis project was purely bioinformatics and I had a very encouraging and hands-on supervisor who was patient with me and taught me a lot to do with coding technique, method and reasoning. After I graduated I knew I wanted to keep coding, whether in research or a non-academic role.

Pleuni: What is your current job or project?

Simone: I’m currently studying for a PhD in bioinformatics and immunology. I now use coding (in both R and python languages) to analyze sequencing data. In this work, code is able to help us understand exactly what cells are present in both healthy and disease tissue, and helps us look further into the role these cells could be playing.

Pleuni: Do you have any advice for students who are starting to learn coding skills?

Simone: If you have an interest in anything bioinformatics related, my advice is to seek out a role model and be brave – ask for their advice and see what you can learn from their experiences! Also, there are active online communities for women in STEM, women who code and people who are Black in academia. Reach out if any of these groups relate to you and know that you are not alone

You can find Simone on twitter under her twitter handle @SimSci9 !