#WhyIScience Q&A: A software engineer tells her story of moving from finance to biomedical research
Eno-Abasi Augustine-Akpan discovered computer science while taking a course in college and realized how it touches every aspect of our lives. Today as a software engineer, she helps biologists understand their data better and inspires young Black students to pursue careers in STEM.
After graduating with a major in biomedical engineering and a minor in computer science from the University of Iowa, Augustine-Akpan went to work as a technology analyst at a leading finance company. However, her passion for impacting the lives and health of people drove her to change her career in financial technology (or fintech) to one in biomedical research. Augustine-Akpan is now a software engineer at the Data Sciences Platform (DSP) of the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard.
Augustine-Akpan also works on projects that help advance the careers of Black professionals and students in STEM. She is the corporate relations chair for the National Society of Black Engineers Boston Professionals and vice president of a program called Black Girls Do Science, which she helped run while at the University of Iowa. Black Girls Do Science aims to challenge the general notion of what a scientist looks like and show Black adolescent girls that they can have fulfilling and successful careers in STEM.
In a #WhyIScience Q&A, Augustine-Akpan shared with us why she loves being a programmer, what inspired her to change careers, and what advice she has for aspiring software engineers.
Q. What got you interested in computer science?
A. What really resonated with me was the ability of computer science to bridge gaps within communities. For example, social media, a product of computer science, has impacted me personally. My parents are Nigerian, and I am a first-generation American. I am still meeting many family members who are back in Nigeria via social media, and I haven’t met them in person.
At a professional level, I was inspired by the impact of computer science in healthcare. I was thrilled by the possibility that computer science could bridge the gap between doctors and patients, by empowering doctors to make better predictions and recommendations for their patients.
Q. What do you like about programming?
A. Being able to code is a very fulfilling experience for me. When you write a program, watch people interact with it, and understand how they interact – it’s both mind-blowing and a satisfying experience.
Q. Why did you leave fintech for biomedicine and health?
A. While I thoroughly enjoyed my role as a tech analyst in my previous company, I gradually began to realize that I wanted to make software products that can touch the lives of people beyond the confines of the organizations that are making the products. I wanted to develop software that could impact the human condition. Also, I come from a family of healthcare professionals, and I think that, in some way, influenced my thinking and career interests.
It is interesting to note that both fintech and biotech use a lot of similar software technologies. So as a software engineer who transitioned from one field to the other, I am continuing to work on what I am most passionate about -- optimizing processes. Being able to build fundamental frameworks and then adapting them, optimizing them, and applying them to whatever problem you have at hand, in finance or biotech, is the part of my job I enjoy the most.
Q. Tell us about your current role at the Broad.
A. I am a software engineer with the Single Cell Portal (SCP) team of DSP. The portal accelerates single-cell research by allowing scientists to turn their single-cell data into actionable research insights.
My role as a software engineer is to build features that support new research methods and data on SCP. For example, I’m currently developing functionality that extracts and transforms large datasets ultimately allowing scientists to interact with the data using various pipelines and tools available on the portal.
Q. Have you faced challenges in your career? If yes, what did you learn from the experience?
A. I grew up in an immigrant-Nigerian family in Iowa, which is primarily a white state. While growing up, there were times when I struggled as a Black girl. There were times when people didn’t believe in me and my potential. There were a lot of times I was doubted.
At the end of the day, I always remind myself that I deserve to be everywhere I have gotten so far, and I worked hard to get to those places. I deserve to be here and there isn’t any table that I can’t sit at.
Photo credit: Black Girls Do Science
Q. What inspired you and your peers to start Black Girls Do Science?
A. When I was growing up in Iowa, I didn’t see other Black women in STEM jobs, nor did I see many women of color in scientific roles on television. Also, a significant number of Black families in Iowa are under the poverty line, thus having limited access to camps and programs. They are unable to send their kids to STEM camps.
With Black Girls Do Science, we wanted young adolescent girls to see Black scientists and engineers who could be role models and make them believe that careers in STEM were attainable.
Q: Tell us more about Black Girls Do Science.
A. I was one of the organizers of Black Girls Do Science when I was in the College of Engineering at the University of Iowa. Currently, as vice president on the board, I am a part of an effort to turn the program into a nonprofit. I hope one day, it can become a national program.
The program is run by volunteers who conduct workshops for young girls of color from third through eighth grades. For example, volunteers from Rockwell Collins (an aviation company) came in to do a workshop on model airplanes, and volunteers from the National Organization for the Professional Advancement of Black Chemists and Chemical Engineers came in to conduct a session on lipstick-making. The overall goal is to get these girls to develop problem-solving skills that will help them prepare for STEM-related careers.
Q. What is your advice for students who are considering a career in software engineering?
A. Software engineering is a vast field and there is a demand for software engineers in multiple sectors – marketing, retail, healthcare, etc. First off, you have to ask yourself what is going to make you happy and what do you care about most. Give some thought to the sector you are choosing for your career.
When you are first starting off, be flexible about learning new skills and growing your knowledge. You may think you know what you want, and that is probably not it. Come with an open mind and ask questions.
Be ready to take some risks at the beginning of your career. I personally think there are no such things as failures, they are just redirects.