Women in STEM, Featuring Maria Nattestad, PhD, of DNAnexus
By Sara Kuethe, Head of Health and Pharmaceutical Marketing, Microsoft on March 13, 2018
Filed under Health
|Focus on: Transforming Health|
- Hi Maria, thank you for joining us in this month’s Women in STEM blog series. Can you please start by telling us about DNAnexus, the company you work for?
Thank you, yes, I work at DNAnexus, a biomedical informatics and data management company headquartered in Mountain View, California. We combine scientific expertise with a flexible cloud platform that we use to help life-sciences organizations bring all their data storage and analysis to the cloud.
Bringing bioinformatics into the cloud is necessary because the amount and diversity of data is increasing rapidly, which is great but it’s also a challenge to manage the data, analyze it effectively, share it with the right people, and record everything to make the research reproducible. The opportunity is to be able to analyze the thousands of datasets, to put them all through the same process to really control what’s happening and make the most of the data. For example, in the case of biomedical research, you may be looking for disease associations, so you compare the genomes of people with and without a certain disease to look for differences in their genomes that could help explain the cause of that disease. Some diseases like cancer have many complex underlying causes, so it takes a lot more data to figure them out, and that’s just one example where scaling everything up on the cloud helps achieve goals in biomedical research that would otherwise not be possible.
- How exciting to be on the front lines of such exciting and innovative work! Can you tell me about your role as a Woman in STEM for your company?
It is very exciting to be in STEM, and as the Data Visualization Team Lead, I am working to build this interdisciplinary role as a bridge between science and software development. I am the first person in this role, which represents an important way that DNAnexus is pushing into new frontiers and driving innovation in the field. Data visualization is both particularly important and challenging in genomics because the datasets are very large and complex, and the way that we represent the data will influence what kinds of patterns other scientists can see and the conclusions that they can draw from the data. Another great challenge in this role stems from the fact that DNAnexus works with a wide variety of organizations to build solutions for many kinds of datasets across biology and medicine, so our methods for data visualization have to be as flexible as the platform itself.
- That really sounds fascinating. I am very curious how you got started in your STEM career?
When you look at the 10,000-foot overview it looks like my STEM career was very straight forward, but in fact it was kind of a winding path, and it was a process of reconsidering my plans and going in a new direction every couple of years. I think this is something that a lot of people with interesting STEM careers will say, that it wasn’t straight forward even though it looks like it. For me the story started when I was the only girl in my computer science class my first year of high school. I took that as a fun challenge to prove that girls can code too, but over time I got discouraged by what society was telling me my life would look like as a programmer: sitting alone and programming until late at night, hunched over the keyboard. I now know that this is not actually true, but it was enough to pull me away from computer science for the next 6 years. I pursued biology in college because I loved the scientific thinking and the never-ending complexity. Computer science pulled me back in when toward the end of college, I learned that there was a field between biology and computer science, which was called bioinformatics and I got excited about that and decided to pursue that for my PhD.
- What is your favorite part of being a woman in STEM?
My favorite thing about being in STEM is how interdisciplinary it can be. You think of it as science, technology, engineering and math but in many cases, we end up combining all of these together. What I really like about bioinformatics is that people come into it from all different fields: biology, computer science, mathematics, and some even come from physics and they bring all their different experiences and perspectives to look at some of the problems in biology that are quite complicated, and we really do need this interdisciplinary approach to come up with creative solutions.
- What advice do you have for other women looking at entering a STEM career?
The biggest advice that I always give to potential women in STEM, is that the best, most interesting careers are never straight forward. We’re all making it up as we go along, so you shouldn’t be afraid to do that too. Don’t be afraid to combine different interests together even if they are completely different fields, even if they are outside of science or STEM, you combine that with a STEM major and you’ve really got something interesting. And don’t hold yourself back from pursuing something just because you’re not sure that you want the traditional career path at the end of that track. Really the STEM career landscape changes so dramatically every few years you shouldn’t think that just because you take a biology major that you need to become a doctor or a biology professor, it’s not the way things work anymore. Don’t be afraid to make up your career out of different pieces of different fields as you go along.
Learn more about DNAnexus and Microsoft solutions by viewing the Transform Health on-demand webinar.
DNAnexus is a cloud-based platform optimized to address the challenges of security, scalability, and collaboration for organizations that are pursuing genomic-based approaches to biological research and human health. Learn more at https://www.dnanexus.com/
Discover how health organizations across the globe are partnering with Microsoft to move beyond digitization into transformation and rallying with innovation at https://enterprise.microsoft.com/en-us/industries/health/
Maria Nattestad, PhD, Data Visualization Team Lead, DNAnexus
Sara Kuethe, Head of Health and Pharmaceutical Marketing, Microsoft