How mentors shaped a data scientist’s career path towards industry and translational research
Javier Pineda works as a data scientist and bioinformatician at a company called Scientist.com in San Diego, where he uses various machine learning and bioinformatic tools to help biopharmaceutical clients determine the optimal disease models for their drug development studies. In 2010, he was an undergraduate student at the University of Notre Dame where he started dabbling in research for the first time. In a computational biology lab, he used computer simulations and programming to help design new drug candidates. His research advisor at the time encouraged him to apply to the Broad Summer Research Program (BSRP) to get a wider exposure to translational research in biology.
Pineda was selected for the intensive nine-week summer research opportunity designed for undergraduates, for two consecutive summers in 2011 and 2012. During both summers he worked in the lab of Jay Bradner who was then at Broad’s Chemical Biology Program and the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute and is now president of the Novartis Institutes for BioMedical Research. Pineda, who was majoring in chemistry at the time and had a newfound interest in small molecules and drug design, learned how biology shapes drug discovery research from his BSRP mentors Bradner and then-postdoc Jason Marineau, who now works in biotech.
The BSRP, run by the Broad’s Diversity, Education, and Outreach Office, aims to increase the number of students, especially those from underrepresented backgrounds, entering and succeeding in STEM careers. The office is focused on developing and implementing innovative programming to enhance student understanding and access to STEM careers. Since 2003, 148 undergraduates have participated in the BSRP. The Broad has also hosted 87 high school students in its Broad Summer Scholars Program (BSSP) since 2013, in addition to 247 high school seniors who have completed the Broad’s genomics elective course through an MIT program called MITES since 2003.
Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, student researchers this summer participated in the programs remotely and focused on computational research. For the BSSP, which ran June 29 through August 7, 12 high school scholars worked in teams of two with one Broad scientist-mentor to conduct research in areas such as infectious disease, imaging, cancer, and psychiatric disease. For the BSRP, which ran June 8 through July 31, 10 undergraduates learned a programming language and completed group projects remotely with input from several Broad scientists. Four of the undergraduates, who have experience in computational methods, worked on independent research projects. Other events, including career panels, scientific talks, social events, and presentations, occurred via video conference.
In the third of a short series of articles featuring alumni of these summer programs, we spoke with Pineda, who went on to pursue his doctoral studies in chemical biology at Harvard University. After completing his PhD in 2018, Pineda moved to California for a career in industry –– a plan he had formulated during his time at the Broad.
In this Q&A, Pineda shares how those summers with BSRP taught him the value of good communication, true mentorship, and the impact of translational research — lessons that have remained with him over the last decade.
Q. What was the biggest thing you gained or learned from your time in the program?
A. The BSRP organizers at the time, Bruce Birren and Ebony Smith, had these unique mantras for the program. One thing they said that always stuck with me is the idea of being really careful about choosing who your mentors are. I have taken that advice very seriously all throughout grad school and even to the present day. So that was definitely the biggest lesson.
I had great mentors during my program at the Broad, Jay Bradner, Jason Marineau, and various scientists in the Bradner lab. And even at grad school, I picked who my research advisor would be in with this in mind — I kept thinking: who is actually going to give me the training as a scientist that I wanted? And that's how I picked my lab at Harvard Medical School with Timothy Mitchison.
Once I was in the Mitchison lab, I ended up working very closely with the senior scientists and postdocs in the lab, who I really trusted and saw as valuable mentors. I always asked questions and was very receptive to their advice. And today, even though I'm not in grad school anymore, I would say that I still have mentors within industry –– people I talk to about my career trajectory and continue asking for advice.
Q. How did your BSRP mentors’ teachings influence your journey?
A. It's funny now when I reflect on my time back then and realize how little I knew when I was in the program. And yet my mentors had the patience to guide me through it.
During my PhD days and beyond, I learned how one can get so busy and it gets really hard to find time for teaching and mentoring others. Now when I think about it, my BSRP mentors always found time for me and they saw value in it. I think they actually believed that I had something meaningful to contribute to the project from a computational drug design perspective and they valued my input. And most importantly, they just enjoyed guiding others.
I learned from them the importance of being patient and taking the time to guide others, because you never know how meaningful that guidance will be and how it will help the individual or mentee. I learned from my mentors that with even a little bit of guidance, a lot can be done.
Q. How do you think the BSRP influenced your future career path?
A. The program helped me learn about the value of communication. I definitely learned a lot from Jay Bradner in terms of how to communicate with all those around you and how to be mindful of your audience. He always delivered amazing presentations. I still remember one time when he finished his slides just before this event and then he started presenting right away once he got there. You wouldn't have even guessed that he had just finished his slides. During the two summers I spent in his lab, I learned from him on how to present well and how to be mindful of your audience.
To this day, I don't hesitate giving presentations at all, which happens all the time in industry. Especially when you're working with clients, you've got to present the work that you did for them, be ready to answer any and all questions or doubts. So that is something I've become really used to and comfortable with, starting from being in the Bradner lab.
The second thing is my decision to go to industry. My time at the Broad really helped in solidifying that decision. I spent a lot of time talking to people and I developed a sense of what it would be like if I stayed in academia or if I went into industry. The whole reason why I went into industry is because I really valued the translational side of research. Academic researchers obviously tackle a lot of difficult questions that industry won't tackle, and that's really important. But in industry, they are the ones making the drugs. And so I always aspired to be a little closer to that side of translational impact.
Q. What advice would you give to future candidates applying for this program?
A. The biggest piece of advice that I would give is to really talk to people who have career trajectories that are different from the one you can imagine for yourself. So for me, I had the privilege of speaking to people like Jay Bradner, at least from time to time, about a variety of topics ranging from career decisions to balancing family with career. I also had the ability to talk to postdocs in the lab, graduate students at Harvard and MIT, and other senior scientists at the Broad like Stuart Schreiber.
So the biggest thing you can do is to just talk to different people and only then can you really piece it all together and have a sense of what you may want for yourself.