Most mornings, guitar in hand, I’d walk over to my favourite practice room at my university dorm. It wasn’t anything fancy and the floor was covered with sheets of music, but it was cosy, and I loved spending the day there practising. I was enrolled in a music degree at the Australian National University, where some of my mentors had attended when they were aspiring musicians.
But something wasn’t right. As I continued further down the path that would lead me to what I envisioned for myself, I became increasingly dissatisfied. Doubts began to creep in, and I started to question whether this was what I really wanted to do with my life. It wasn’t long after graduating that I decided to take a break to explore other possible avenues. From labour work to teaching English in Tokyo, I explored my options with an open mind while travelling in my spare time. When I was visiting a friend in Berlin, he recommended two books that would open my eyes to the exciting world of biology and science: ‘The Selfish Gene’ by Richard Dawkins and ‘The Gene’ by Siddhartha Mukerjee.
Fast forward 10 years and I’m a second year PhD student in Computational Biology, a position I never thought I’d be in. Instead of notes and chords, I now spend my time thinking about genes and the trillions of tiny biological machines that make up you, me, and all other living organisms. Cells are the smallest units of life, and work tirelessly to keep everything in working order. Immune cells ward off unwanted guests, red blood cells deliver oxygen to our organs, and brain cells keep us awake until three in the morning to replay our most embarrassing memories.
A cell’s identity and function are governed by genes, much like the way the combination of notes that form a chord determines how it sounds. For example, brain cells will have specific active genes to help us think, while red blood cells require different genes so that they can carry and deliver oxygen to our organs. These cell-type specific genes, also known as marker genes, can be used to define a cell’s identity and function. With the recent advances in sequencing technology, scientists can now peer into how gene regulatory networks drive both healthy and diseased states in individual cells, which are a hundred times smaller than a millimetre!
You might imagine me in a white lab coat attentively staring down a microscope, but instead you will find me working away on my computer. One benefit of doing research in computational biology is I can do my work from home or anywhere else I'd like! In my research, I explore the cellular and subcellular world of cells and genes using statistical tools to extract patterns and tell a story of what is going on in the data, just as I would compose a piece of music using melody, rhythm, and harmony. Currently, I am developing a computational method to automate the process of detecting cell types in biological data. For another project, I’m comparing the genes of retina cells in young and old mice, which might give us an idea of which genes are important for good eye health. Variety is the spice of life as they say.
While I never thought that I’d be doing anything remotely related to science, it is a very welcome change. In many ways science is like music. It is collaborative, exploratory, and encourages curiosity. But it also requires systematic and lateral thinking - both of which I find challenging. Learning anything new will always have its difficulties, it wasn’t any different when I first began learning the guitar. What keeps me motivated is the joy of learning something that excites me, it is a privilege. If there’s anything I’ve learned from this experience, it’s that our interests and passions are not fixed; they can evolve. By embracing these changes, we open ourselves to exciting opportunities for both personal and intellectual growth.