Tag Archives: PINC

Dr Chris Davies’ PINC/GOLD/gSTAR Program 2022 Graduation Speech

16 Sep
Image of Dr Chris Davies giving his speech. On the right you see the slide with his name and title: Christopher Davies, PhD. Antibody Engineering Department. Genentech Early Research and Development (gRED). Genentech, Inc.

Chris Davies: “Today, we are here to recognize and celebrate these students who began, endured, and successfully completed the PINC, GOLD, or gSTAR certificate programs. I want to begin by saying congratulations and well done. Bringing together the fields of computing and data science with biology and chemistry is a pathway towards the future, that is now. The growth of technology to analyze large data sets, create applications, and the ability to code has never been more important in a generation than it is now. To the dreamers and organizers of these programs, I am happy to say your dream has come true amongst these students today.

For those of you that do not know me, my name is Chris Davies, and I am so honored to be here today speaking to you. My involvement in this celebration today arose from a vision that began with Joy Branford and Marlena Jackson at Genentech. A vision for change and opportunity. To change the face of STEM education, and to provide an opportunity to those that were not born into opportunity. My job at Genentech is to discover next generation medicines that change the lives of the patients that we serve. My job in life is to be Chris, a man that tries to make a difference in the lives of all the individuals that he encounters. I saw the gSTAR program as the opportunity that aligned perfectly with that job description. Alongside, my Genentech colleague, Chunwan, and SF State professor, Anagha, we envisioned a course that not only imparts knowledge to the students, but builds a bridge of life experiences that each student can walk across, allowing them to see and believe that they can achieve and aspire to similar or even greater levels. That vision became CSC 601, a seminar series course that outlined the drug discovery and drug development process from basic biology to post market approval, using current Genentech employees as guest speakers, whose jobs span the entire drug development process. Not only did the speakers talk about their job description and the role it plays in drug development, but also, each speaker outlined their life and career journey, emphasizing the successes, failures, and challenges that have led up to where they are at now.

The journey of a class and a scientist

Chunwan and I were the first “guest speakers.” We introduced the entire drug development process from start to finish. I have to say this was fun! Getting back into the classroom (albeit virtual) to engage with college students brought me back to my days in graduate school. We were able to set to tone and foundation for what was to come during the semester. Think about the timing and relevance of this course topic. We were and still are in the midst of the largest global health pandemic anyone has ever seen. The news was littered with information on the discovery and development of vaccines, followed by more information on vaccine and drug authorizations and approvals. What better way to engage with current events than to impart knowledge, but also make room for open discussion? Just like the rest of the speaker panel, we highlighted our life and career journey. A journey that included for me growing up in Kentucky to Sierra Leonean parents, who immigrated to the United States South in the embers of the Jim Crow era in 1973. A journey that included balancing life as a division I soccer player at Western Kentucky University with a chemistry major, mathematics minor, all while being heavily involved in undergraduate research. A journey that took me to Atlanta, GA for two summers for an internship at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), which opened the doors for me to pursue my doctoral degree at Purdue University in Indiana. A journey that led me to pack up my car to drive 2225.5 miles across the country to start a new life in Oakland, CA on a $39k postdoc salary at 26 years old.

As I sat through each class during the semester, I could see the level of engagement from the students and the impact each speaker was making as he or she described their journey and job. My favorite class of the semester was the last class, in which we held an in-person discussion session. I was blown away by the overwhelmingly positive responses and feedback from those that took 601. On behalf of all the guest speakers, I want to thank the 601 students for your willingness to allow us to take you along for the ride through our life and career journey.

The students of the gSTAR class that Dr Davies (on the far right) developed and taught with Dr Anagha Kulkarni (on the far left) and Dr Chun-Wan Yen (not pictured).

To the graduating students

That was a little bit about me, my involvement, and appreciation for the gSTAR partnership with SF State. For the second part of this speech, I would like to speak directly to you, students, because we are here to celebrate you and your achievement today. When I was asked to be the speaker at this celebration, I was overwhelmed with humility and honor that I would be entrusted with this responsibility. A responsibility to not only represent myself, Genentech, and the ones who were brave enough to ask me to talk and impart my ridiculousness, that some might call wisdom or encouragement. For those that know me, I love to talk, connect with people through stories, laughing, jokes, and through wrestling with life’s most challenging and deep topics. In order to collect my thoughts to ensure they were coherent, I first went to YouTube and searched for commencement speeches.  I listened to speeches from Barack Obama, Oprah Winfrey, Denzel Washington, and Chadwick Boseman. Even this past weekend, I heard former NBA champion, Dwayne Wade, give Marquette University’s commencement speech. Each speaker used their life’s journey to impart wisdom to the graduates, in hopes to inspire them as they embark on their next steps.  These individuals that I listened to need no introduction. These individuals have done extraordinary things in their lives that we continue to celebrate today, but let us not forget they all started out as people just like you and I. They had upbringings and experiences like many people in this room today, but what was it that separated them from the rest? Was it their talent, resilience, passion, desire, determination, hard work, belief, support system, opportunity, etc? The first thing I want to say to you is that you have to embrace your own journey, it isn’t about comparing yourself to other’s successes or failures, but try to take pieces of others experiences to help propel you on your own path.  

There are four things that I have learned along my journey through life that I hope will help inspire you along your own life journey.  I continue to live by and struggle through what these four things mean for me in each season of my life. This is an ever changing and ongoing process.

The 2022 GOLD, PINC and gSTAR graduates. The picture shows 18 students and a cake with candles.

#1: Explore what brings you excitement and try to do those things

In school, I always did well in math and science, and my dad was/is a chemist, therefore, he pushed my siblings and I towards majoring in chemistry in college. Doing chemistry and working in a lab did not fit for my brother and sister, even though they did it to please my father. For me, once I started doing undergraduate research my second semester of college, chemistry became real for me. I enjoyed it! I learned so much working alongside my professor. I enjoyed getting results and analyzing data, all in pursuit of telling a story of what we think is going on. Soon I realized that working in the lab enabled me to travel all over the United States to go to conferences to present my data, talk to people, and continue to learn even more. Being at a conference opened the door for me to get an internship at the CDC, which exposed me to the world of proteins, biochemistry, but most importantly, that getting a PhD was possible for me. Obtaining a PhD open doors for me to come out here to do a postdoc at UC Berkeley, and then, transition to Genentech. The main takeaway is that it started with my openness to trying something new that ending up being fun and exciting. I had no idea that saying yes back then would lead me to me standing here in front of you today. What I do know is that doing stuff that excited me helped me to navigate the challenging and difficult moments along the way.

#2: Seek balance in your life

Following on from my first point about doing things that you are excited about. I grew up playing soccer since age 5. I played on travel teams, high school varsity, I was a division I soccer player, and I even played for a semi-pro soccer team while pursing my PhD. A typical weekday during graduate school consisted of working in the lab from morning until 5pm, and then, I would leave campus to go to the sports club to coach kids for 2-3 hours, before having my team training for another 2 hours. After practice, we would go eat around 10:30-11PM, and then, I would shower and go to bed to do it all over again the next day. Weekends consisted of playing games locally, or traveling as far as 4-6 hours for away games. As crazy as this schedule was, it brought the perfect balance in my life.  When I was at school, I was focused on chemistry, when I left school, I was focused on coaching and playing. The main takeaway here is that seeking balance in your life is healthy and beneficial. I learned to be so much more efficient in my work, but also soccer gave me a release from school, and school gave me a release from soccer.

#3: Find mentors

This I believe is one of the most important things that I’ve learned along the way. Finding people that can help guide you along your path. You do not need people to give you step by step instructions, but you need a mix of people, a board of advisors, that you can lean on a times to help you navigate this journey called life. The key things about mentors are: (1) they do not have to look like you, (2) they do not have to be your friend, (3) they should be people who have your best interest in mind, (4) they should be individuals that challenge you to grow, and (5) they should be people who call you out equally as often as they praise and support you. These are people whose goal and desire is to see you reach your full potential, along your own journey. Sometimes these people are in your life for only a season, others across multiple seasons, but I encourage you to seek these people, be open to learning along the way, and continue to stay connected or in touch, even if it is only for a simple check-in or hello.

#4: Do not be afraid to be uncomfortable

I have found that growth and progress is uncomfortable. Some of my greatest successes and accomplishments stemmed from saying yes to stepping into, remaining in, and/or enduring uncomfortable situations and circumstances. The best example in my life was my decision to move out here. I was finishing my doctorate degree and I was still playing soccer, coaching, and I had a couple job opportunities, one in particular to work for my friend/mentor’s company. He painted the picture of learning directly from him in the area of pharmaceutical analysis, while continuing to play and coach soccer. He even proposed that I take over managing the soccer club. To put it simply, I thought this was my dream scenario to do science and soccer.  Everything was perfect, I knew the area, the people, and I would still learn and grow in my career, however, there was one thing that held me back from saying yes, this would have been comfortable. I had one opportunity, a postdoc at UC Berkeley, that paid me less, in an area that I knew nothing about, without friends and family, but would be an adventure, especially since I was 26 at the time. I chose to move out here to the unknown instead of staying for the known. I would rather come out here and it not work out, than to be too afraid to try.  It was uncomfortable adjusting to life in the Bay Area compared to the south and Midwest. It was uncomfortable having to start life all over again making new friends and learning new routines. It was uncomfortable paying $1100 for an apartment the exact same size as one that I only paid $500 for in Indiana. I had no idea at the time how my life would turn out, but that decision changed my life forever. Just think, I would not be standing before you here today. The main takeaway here is do not be afraid to be uncomfortable because you never know what can come out on the other side.

Dream big and do not be afraid

            In closing, I would like to encourage you to dream big and do not be afraid. Congratulations on completing these programs and good luck with the next steps in the journey. Thank you for your time and this opportunity to speak.” 

The SFSU and Genentech team responsible for creating and teaching the gSTAR program. Chris Davies is in the middle of the back row, the tallest of the group.

Matt Suntay’s jump into the PINC computing program

27 May

Matt Suntay is one of the students in the PINC program and also a research student in my lab in the E. coli / drug resistance / machine learning team. A few days ago he gave a speech at our PINC/GOLD/gSTAR graduation event. I thought it was a great speech and Matt was kind enough to let me share it here both as a video and the text for those of you who prefer reading.

“To those of you who may know me, you all know I’m pretty adventurous. For those of you who may not know me, first off, my name is Matthew Suntay, and I have jumped off planes, cliffs, and bridges – and each time was just as exhilarating as the last. But, let me tell you about my most favorite jump: the leap of faith I took for the PINC program.

I call it a leap of faith because when I first heard about the PINC program, and specifically CSC 306, I thought, “Ain’t no way this could be for me. I may be stupid because I can barely understand the English in o-chem and now I gotta understand the English in Python? Maaaan, English isn’t even my first language… But they said I don’t need any prior computer science knowledge, so why not? It’s Spring ‘21, new year, new me, right?”

And let me tell you, it definitely made me a new me. I went from printing “Hello World!” to finding genes in Salmonella to constructing machine-learning models to study Alzheimer’s Disease and antibiotic resistance in E. coli. These are some pretty big jumps–my favorite, right?–and they weren’t easy to make. However, I was never scared to make any one of those jumps because of the PINC program.

When I think PINC, I don’t only see lines of code across my screen or cameras turned off on Zoom. I see friends, colleagues, mentors, and teachers. I see a community.

I see a community willing to support me in my efforts to develop myself as a scientist. I see a community providing me the platform and opportunities to grow as a researcher. And most importantly, I see a community that shared hardships, tears, laughter, and success with me.

I can confidently say that the PINC program was, and still is, monumental to my journey through science. Thanks to the PINC program, many doors have been opened to me and one of those doors I’m always happy to walk through each time is the one in Hensill Hall, Room 406 – or the CoDE lab. It was here in this lab that I met some of the most amazing people who want to do nothing but help me reach new heights. I’m so grateful and lucky to have them. So thank you, Dr. Pennings, for believing in me and continuing to believe in me. Thank you to everyone in the CoDE lab for supporting me and laughing at my terrible jokes – and real talk, please keep doing so, I don’t know how to handle the embarrassment that comes after a bad joke.

If I haven’t said it enough already, thank you so much to the PINC program. If you were to ask the me from a year ago what his plans were for the future, he would tell you, “Slow down, dude, I don’t even know I’m trying to eat for breakfast tomorrow.” But now if you were to ask me what my plans for the future are, I’d still tell you I don’t know what I’m trying to eat for breakfast tomorrow because I’m too busy writing code to solve my most current research question, whatever it may be.

For many students, including myself, one of the biggest causes of an existential crisis is, “What am I gonna do after I graduate?” To be honest, I’m still thinking that same thought, but without the dread of an existential crisis. One of the coolest parts of the PINC program is the exposure to research and the biotechnology industry, and learning that research == me and not just != the stereotype of a scientist.

Dr. Yoon, thank you for taking the time and effort to push me and my teammates forward, because even though our projects were difficult, we learned a lot about machine-learning and ourselves, like who knew we had it in us this whole time? You definitely did and you helped us see that. Professor Kulkarni, you also helped us realize that we should give ourselves more credit. 601 and 602 showed us we can be competitive and that we’re worth so much more than we make ourselves out to be. Also, I would like to give a quick shoutout to Chris Davies and Chun-Wan Yan for the wonderful seminars because those talks gave me hope and inspiration for the future. Knowing that there’s something out there for me makes going into the future a lot less scary and a lot more exciting because who knows what awesome opportunity is waiting for me?

And one last honorable mention I would like to make is to Professor Milo Johnson. He was my CSC 306 professor, and I don’t know if he is here today, but he was an amazing teacher in more ways than one. He helped me turn my ideas into possibilities and I have him to thank for helping kick start my journey through PINC. When I thought “I couldn’t do it, this isn’t for me,” he said “Don’t worry, you got this.”

So, once again, to wrap things up, thank you to everyone who’s helped me out this far and continues to help me out. Thank you to all my friends, mentors, and teachers that I’ve met along the way. And thank you to the PINC program, the best jump I’ve ever made.

Matthew Suntay – PINC graduate 2022

Meet Christopher Davies, senior principal scientific researcher at Genentech.

1 Dec

Christopher has a BS in Chemistry from Western Kentucky University where he was also a very successful collegiate soccer player. As an undergrad he did an internship at the CDC. He then went to do a PhD at Purdue University. The title of his thesis was “Structural and Functional Characterization of the Endosome-associated Deubiquitinating Enzyme AMSH.” He published his results in peer-reviewed journals such as the Journal of Molecular Biology (link). He then applied for and got a postdoc fellowship from the National Institutes of Health to go to UC Berkeley to do a postdoc. From there he got a job at Genentech and now has been there for 6 years.

Christopher Davies’ LinkedIn Profile photo.
Image of one of the research articles Christopher published from his PhD work.

1. How did you decide to get a degree in biochemistry? What interested you in making this choice? What were the challenges (if any) and were your successes that drove you to achieve this degree?

My first experience working with proteins came during my summer internship at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) after my junior year in college. After that summer at the CDC, I returned for my senior year in college, took a biochemistry course and a nutrition course, and I thoroughly enjoyed how practical and applicable biochemistry is to all of us. From here, I knew I would pursue my graduate studies in biochemistry. The main challenge that I had going into graduate school was that I was a chemistry and mathematics major in undergrad, therefore, I had to spend a lot of time learning the basic biology concepts. Overall, my passion for learning the interface between chemistry and biology really drove me to successfully obtaining my doctorate degree in biochemistry.

2. Why are you interested in a career in Biotech? What inspires you about this work?

I am interested in biotech because this is an industry in which you can make a tangible and life-changing impact in the lives of patients. Coming out of my postdoc, I wanted to my work on real drug discovery, and learn about how basic research can be turned into drugs that make a difference. The ability to be involved in and around people who have discovered impactful medicines inspires me every day.  

3. What do you want to do in your future career? What are you aiming for?

In my future career, I want to learn about how the other parts of the organization, outside of early research, fit together to form an impactful organization that makes a difference in the lives of patients.

4. In your opinion, why should a student at SF State consider a career in Biotech?

An SF State student should consider a career in biotech because this is an industry in which you can make a broad, impactful difference in the lives of people, while also being at the center of innovation.

5. Can you share something interesting about yourself?

I played soccer my entire life since I was 5 years old. I played division I college soccer, semi-professionally while pursuing my doctorate degree, and I traveled to three European tournaments with the Genentech soccer team.

News story about Christopher Davies winning soccer and academic honors. https://www.bgdailynews.com/sports/davies-wins-honor/article_fd25a40f-4006-549c-8c8d-9521d3b436c4.html
Image of Christopher Davies playing soccer.
Image of Christopher Davies playing soccer.

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!

Scientist Spotlight: Berenice Chavez Rojas

28 May

Berenice Chavez Rojas graduated from SFSU in 2021 with a major in biology and a minor in computing applications. She is moving to Boston to work in a lab at Harvard’s Medical School.

Pleuni: Hi Berenice, congratulations on graduating this semester! 
I know that you are starting a job at Harvard soon. Would you mind telling me what you’ll be doing there and how you found that job? Did your coding skills help you land this job?

Berenice: I’ll be working as a research assistant in a wet lab. The model organism is C. elegans and the project will focus on apical-basal polarity in neurons and glia. I found this job on Twitter! Having a science Twitter is a great way to find research and job opportunities as well as learn new science from other scientists. While I won’t be using my computational skills as part of this job, the research experience I have been able to obtain with my coding skills did help me. 

“coding always seemed intimidating and unattainable”

Pleuni: When did you start to learn coding? 

Berenice: I started coding after I was accepted to the Big Data Summer Program two years ago [Note from Pleuni: this is now the PINC Summer Program]. This was also my first exposure to research and I’m grateful I was given this opportunity. This opportunity really changed my experience here at SFSU and it gave me many new opportunities that I don’t think I would have gotten had I not started coding. Following the Big Data Summer Program I started working in Dr. Rori Rohlfs’ computational biology lab. I also received a fellowship [https://seo.sfsu.edu/] which allowed me to stop working my retail job, this gave me more time to focus on school and research. 

Pleuni: Did you always want to learn coding?

Berenice: Not at all, coding always seemed intimidating and unattainable. After my first exposure to coding, I still thought it was intimidating and I was slightly hesitant in taking CS classes. Once I started taking classes and the more I practiced everything began to make more sense. I also realized that Google and StackOverflow were great resources that I could access at any time. To this day, I still struggle and sometimes feel like I can’t make any progress on my code, but I remind myself that I’ve struggled many times before and I was able to persevere all those times. It just takes time!

The forensic genetics team at the Big Data Science Program in the summer of 2019. Berenice Chavez Rojas is in the middle.
The forensic genetics team at the Big Data Science Program in the summer of 2019. Berenice Chavez Rojas is in the middle.

“At the end of this project, I was able to see how much I had learned and accomplished”

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

Berenice: My favorite part of the PINC program was working on a capstone project of our choice. At the end of this project, I was able to see how much I had learned and accomplished as part of the PINC program and it was a great, rewarding feeling. As with any project, our team goals changed as we made progress and as we faced new obstacles in our code. Despite taking many redirections, we made great progress and learned so much about coding, working in teams, time management, and writing scientific proposals/reports.

Link to a short video Berenice made about her capstone project: https://www.powtoon.com/c/eKaZB3kkxE5/0/m

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? 

Berenice: I think computer science is seen as a male-dominated field and this makes it a lot more intimidating and may even push people away. The PINC program does a great job of creating a welcoming and accepting environment for everyone. As a minority myself, this type of environment made me feel safe and I felt like I actually belonged to a community. Programs like PINC that strive to get more students into coding are a great way to encourage students that might be nervous about taking CS classes due to stereotypes associated with such classes. 

“talking to classmates […] was really helpful”

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

Berenice: You can do it! It is challenging to learn how to code and at times you will want to give up but you can absolutely do it. The PINC instructors and your classmates are always willing to help you. I found that talking to classmates and making a Slack channel where we could all communicate was really helpful. We would post any questions we had and anyone could help out and often times more than a few people had the same question. Since this past year was online, we would meet over Zoom if we were having trouble with homework and go over code together. Online resources such as W3Schools, YouTube tutorials and GeeksforGeeks helped me so much. Lastly, don’t bring yourself down when you’re struggling. You’ve come so far; you can and will accomplish many great things!

Pleuni: What’s your dog’s name and will it come with you to Boston?

Berenice: His name is Bowie and he’ll be staying with my family here in California. 

Pleuni: Final question. Python or R?

Berenice: I like Python, mostly because it’s the one I use the most. 

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

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!