Jordana’s passion for precision medicine and data science plus Artificial Intelligence (AI) drives her career as a Computational Biologist. This is one of the hybrid careers not traditionally known in Africa.
Hi Jordana, thank you for joining us today. I am excited to learn about what a computational biologist does
Thank you for inviting me, Winnie. And thanks to Linda for the recommendation.
Briefly introduce yourself to our audience
My name is Jordana Esther Muwanguzi from Uganda. I am a Computational Biologist, currently working for a biotech company under 5AM Ventures Company which discovers, incubates, and funds breakthrough science in Biotechnology. Prior to this, I worked at Foghorn Therapeutics in the same capacity, as a computational biologist for 3.2 years. My other responsibility is teaching at Northeastern University, part-time, two classes: one in Biostatistics and the other, an introduction to data science class.
What does your day as a computational biologist look like?
A lot of my day is spent between coding and data interpretation. As a computational biologist, I make sense of biological data, creating a story out of the data, to affirm the hypothesis of the biologist. For example, at Precede Biosciences we are concerned with utilizing data science for liquid biopsy diagnostics. It’s a team of biologists and a computational biologist. Biologists come up with assays (through experiments) to help with diagnostics.
So, I analyze the data that comes from all these experiments using machine learning, statistics, and code to make sense of the data. Finally, I put together a PowerPoint presentation to explain if the desired target of the experiment was achieved, or if there might be a need for improvement.
The other aspect of my responsibilities is data mining. I look for publicly available genomic datasets, about patients, that give additional information. This helps us identify certain patient profiles and how our drugs would be useful to them. It is quite interesting because in data science, I get to do data analysis and data visualizations, and there is the Machine learning and Artificial Intelligence bit.
Just to summarize, my daily activities include meeting with biologists to find out the different kinds of experiments they are doing and the kind of targets they are thinking of. Then I use data and codes to get the results.
Wow! You are our first computational biologist! We are happy to have you
So, how did you end up as a computational biologist? This is a not-so-common career path!
Becoming a computational biologist was exceptionally challenging because I had last done biology during my O’Level. I joined Makerere University for a degree in Information Technology – still no biology! During my undergraduate degree, I still didn’t see much of a future as an IT graduate. I got an opportunity to intern as a network administrator, which helped me realize that I didn’t want to do that for life. My only choice was to graduate with very good grades and go for my master’s somewhere else.
Lucky for me, my parents helped me apply for a green card after my bachelor’s and I moved to the US. Everyone thought I was going to join the medical field but none of that was on my mind. I only knew that I liked working with data and wouldn’t mind programming. After a tour of various universities, I settled with Northeastern University because of its program in computational biology. It was a combination of machine learning, statistics, biology, and programming. Apart from biology, the rest were fields I knew would be exciting to me.
Life as a graduate student was challenging because I was the only black person in a class of 20 people. On top of that, I was the only one without a biology background in a completely new education system. I had moments of fear, doubt, and sadness because I felt like I was in the wrong place. The only thing that kept me going was my “never giving up” attitude.
During my master’s, I got a chance to do a six-month internship at Momenta Pharmaceuticals in Cambridge. I realized that things were not as hard as they looked in school. I returned courageous enough and successfully finished my degree. At this point, it was hard to get jobs because I didn’t have enough experience. However, the University of Alabama took a chance on me and gave me my first job as an associate computational biologist. This job did a lot for me, it answered a lot of the questions I had about this new path I had taken.
After working for a year, I started getting offers about doing my Ph.D. at this university because it was allowed, as an employee. However, after a series of discussions with people who had done their PhDs, I realized it wasn’t something of interest to me on my career path. A Ph.D. made a lot of sense if you wanted to, maybe stay in academia, and do research, but for me, I needed a place where I would learn how to utilize and develop my computational biology skill more than pursue research. I needed more industry experience.
In 2018, I was introduced to Foghorn as a growing company, interviewed with them, and got hired in 2019. In industry, work gets done faster and there is always a new challenge that would motivate you to learn more, upgrade and attack the problem in a matter of minutes. This style and pace of development are not so visible in academia. Now I know how to identify target healthcare facilities and participate in work that has a meaningful impact on people’s lives.
I always think about how to use what I have learned so far to help people back home in Uganda. My experience as a computational biologist, coupled with the onset of COVID-19, opened my eyes to the differences in the way blacks and Africans receive and respond to medical treatments. For example, the black community in the USA was the most affected by COVID and its effects. We all know that Africa was the last continent to receive vaccines, and after that, the skepticism towards the vaccine was monumental.
We have seen some of the challenges you have faced as a computational biologist. How are you able to pull through such moments?
When I was becoming a computational biologist, my general goal was to make money and get rich. But then, COVID-19 happened, and my priorities changed. So now a lot of it is more about “how can I help people if I have the ability to do so?” My desire changed! Of course, I desire to create generational wealth to make my parents proud and inspire my siblings and other Ugandans. But my biggest desire now is to make a change where I can.
Apart from my love for coding, what I do gives me the liberty to work from anywhere I want. I have not quit yet because I want people to know about computational biology. I want that African girl to know how diverse the STEM field is! When you are leading a race, you don’t stop when tired or do not receive validation. You keep going because many people are inspired by you.
One thing America does is to test how far you can go: mentally, physically, and emotionally. I know there is always talk of diversity inclusion, and gender equality, but that is not the actual case on the ground. People say black women are always angry, well, it is because they must work twice as hard, to get the recognition they deserve. During all the politics, and unfair treatment, we are expected to smile and give off our best while excelling at what we do to be seen or heard.
One thing about this field is that you must be really good at it because it is full of white males. Coming up against them would require you to bring your A-game all the time. Given, you might enjoy the advantage of always stroking their curiosity and ticking their diversity inclusion checkbox, but there is always the disadvantage of being overlooked constantly when you come on board.
For me, the right time to quit will be when I have attained a certain level of financial independence so I can start the project of giving back to Uganda. I look at people like Kevin Hart, Tyler Perry, Steve Harvey, and Oprah Winfrey who have braced several odds and overcome outstanding obstacles to get their names out there.
Let’s talk about moments when you felt recognized for your work as a computational biologist
While I was at the University of Alabama, I co-authored a paper. Although I still have a lot to do and a long way to go, I have seen some of my works being used at the clinic in projects to produce some drugs for some patients. Aside from that, I used to seek validation from work, but after COVID-19, I felt the opportunities are endless if you do not limit yourself to a bubble. Basically, it is beneficial to explore all your interests.
Who is Jordana outside of computers and biology?
I am a Christian. I love spending time with God. He’s been a big part of my career journey. His favor and mercy allow me to push my limits.
I love traveling and doing extreme sports. Recently I tried skydiving, bungee jumping, and skiing. I really dislike boring situations, so I do a lot. I would go to the art gallery, the museum, Broadway, and concerts. Also, I love going to the gym because it helps me de-stress. Occasionally I would go for a walk. So basically, I do not have a particular thing I do all the time. I like to try out a lot of things to see if they would kill me or not. I found out I’m not so good at swimming, so I have started taking lessons. Later I would try scuba diving and other exciting water-related sports.
Oh, and I love going to theme parks. One time I went to Universal Studios in California all by myself, Disneyland, where I tried different rides.
How would you encourage a young girl who would like to become a computational biologist?
I would say that as a young person, you will have to remove the pressure of defining who you are or who you must become at that age. Adults are still figuring out who they want to become, life keeps changing and that’s okay. It is always better to figure out the things you are most interested in, and that is through trying different things. If you have different things you desire, then you should find different ways to help you explore all those interests.
The ridiculous idea that life should be planned out to the letter rarely works. You will not know what you are genuinely passionate about until you try it out. If you ever have some spare time, be your own advocate. Reach out to some older person in an area you feel you might be interested in. I have an auntie who wasn’t so great at math. Her teachers always said, “you can’t do math, you should just drop it”. She got a master’s and Ph.D. in Statistica and was the head of the Infectious Disease Institute (IDI) for ten years before resigning.
I always say, if you are passionate about some field, you should work hard and get into that field. One failed class shouldn’t stop you from exploiting your interests and passion. You do not have to allow the world to define you, you must define the world for yourself.
Thank you, Jordana, for this wonderful time. This has been another learning session for any aspiring computational biologist. I wish you the very best at work and look forward to hearing about that project in Uganda.