Pharmaceutical Sciences and Computational Biology are two different branches of Science. Former deals with designing the small molecules in the laboratory, testing their activity ..etc, while, later deals with analysing the data, writing programs and software tools to analyse the huge amount of biological data generated from various subfields of Biology.
There is a lot of hard work involved in transitioning from a Pharmaceutical field to Computational Biology. I was a Pharmacy graduate, now a Computational Biology PhD student. Keeping my story aside, Goutham Atla, who is, fortunately one of my seniors, also was a Pharmacy graduate, now a Marie-Curie Early Stage Researcher in Computational Biology at IDIBAPS, Spain. Let’s read Goutham Atla’s story, in his own words, of how everything started with a laptop and a mobile phone and how he became a computational biologist being a Pharmacy graduate.
Before going into the story, I should tell that I come from a typical middle class family in India. I spent my childhood in a small village with less than 10,000 people, very close to nature. Later on when I was 16, my mother insisted my father that we move to a nearby town so that we have access to better education.
To cut short, when I was doing my bachelor’s degree in pharmaceutical sciences, I used to have a computer that was given by my uncle. I had requested my father to get me an internet connection, which he could hardly afford during that time. He had to think for couple of days and make many calculations about the household expenses, education for three children, rent for the house etc etc on a piece of paper. Finally, he agreed to get me an internet connection, which had a limited usage of 2 GB during day time and an unlimited usage after midnight to early morning (6am). It was a very big deal for me. It’s the major source to know what’s happening around the world, being in a small town.
It’s all miraculous. I got a carrier locked iPhone from my friend when I was in my bachelor’s degree (around 2008/9). Of course, I could not afford an iPhone during that time, it was gifted. I was amazed by its design, features and the operating system. I started reading about the iPhone and the company built it, Apple Inc. There, I was introduced to STEVE JOBS. I started reading about Steve jobs and fascinated by his story, the story of Apple Inc., his charisma, the reality distortion field and his passion to change the world. Since then, I have been a big admirer of Jobs.
As my iPhone was locked, I was searching a way to unlock it on the internet. I found a tiny tool, blackra1n, which could jailbreak and unlock the device. I was curious to know who built this tool. I came across a 17 years old hacker, called GeoHot, who built the blackra1n tool. I was totally blown away. How a 17 years old kid could make a software that could unlock an iPhone? This created a spark in my mind that nothing is impossible. While reading about GeoHot, I also encountered with the stories of people like Jay Freeman (Saurik).
Thereafter, I started reading stories about the notable people in the computer programming. In that process, I read about Steve Wozniak, Captain Crunch, Kevin Mithnik and of course Bill Gates and few more. I used to watch documentaries, interviews and movies of them. Kevin Mithnik was the world’s most wanted hacker in 90’s. Again, reading about Kevin Mithnik, the rivalry between Kevin Mithnik and Tsutomu Shimomura, the way FBI, along with Shimomura caught Kevin Mithnik, all these storied made me more interested into the world of computer programing.
Meanwhile, I graduated from my bachelor’s degree in pharmaceutical sciences. I had different choices to move forward in pharma field but the stories I read about people in computer science world had greater influence and inspired me more. I got to know the interdisciplinary domain called bioinformatics where one can apply computational techniques analysing data in biological sciences and answer interesting biological questions. Further, I learned programming and Unix skills. I used to do a night shift job, where I had plenty of time to read and practice whatever I liked. After a year, I quit the night shift job and joined a research institute for very low pay but there I could learn techniques in genomics data analysis.
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Following my passion to work on genomics data helped me to get one of the most prestigious PhD fellowships in Europe and to work on genomics of human diabetes.