#WhyIScience Q&A: How a computational biologist balances work with life as an elite rower

Liz Martin reflects on how her career in cancer biology complements her intense training on the water.

Liz Martin in a boat on the water.
Credit: Lisa Worthy
Liz Martin, an elite rower and a computational biologist at the Broad, in a lightweight women's quad at the 2022 World Rowing Championships in Racice, Czech Republic.

As a child, Liz Martin was always active; she spent years dancing and figure skating and tried soccer and basketball. But no one sport stuck. When she entered high school, Martin’s parents encouraged her to find a team sport and — remembering boats gliding across the Charles River when they’d been students at MIT — suggested crew. Martin liked the sport and the feeling of working with a team and being on the water, but wasn’t yet sure she’d row after high school. She didn’t want a sport to conflict with her academics.

But as an undergraduate at MIT, Martin found she could study biology and computer science and still row. In 2018, she graduated with a bachelor’s degree in computer science and biology and joined the lab of Gad Getz at the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard to complete her master’s. Today, she is a senior associate computational biologist in the Getz lab, where she applies computational techniques to DNA and RNA sequencing data to analyze rapid autopsy samples, taken from multiple sites throughout the body at the time of a cancer patient’s death. She aims to better understand how cancers evolve during treatment and throughout a patient’s lifetime.

When Martin started working at the Broad, she also joined the Riverside Boat Club in Cambridge, Massachusetts. She began putting in long hours on the river and by 2019 was competing internationally in the lightweight sculls category. She flew to places like Chile and the Czech Republic for competitions, bringing a laptop with her and working when she could, her labmates cheering her on from afar. In 2021, Martin competed in the US Olympic trials in a lightweight double, and won the world-renowned Head of the Charles regatta in lightweight single sculls. In 2022, she rowed in the world championships and finished second in her division. In 2023, she won a silver medal at the Pan-American Games in Chile. This year, she is training to qualify again for the world championships in August. This year will be the last year she will compete at the world level — she has decided to scale back her rowing to focus more on her scientific career, and 2024 will be the final year that Martin’s category, lightweight rowing, is offered at the Olympics.

We talked to Martin about her interest in cancer biology and what it’s like to juggle time-intensive commitments in this #WhyIScience Q&A.


Liz Martin holds a trophy at the Head of the Charles regatta.
Liz Martin won first place in lightweight single sculls at the Head of the Charles regatta in 2021.
Credit: row2k photography
Liz Martin won first place in lightweight single sculls at the Head of the Charles regatta in 2021.

Tell us a bit about your research. Why are you studying autopsy samples from cancer patients?

Cancers can develop many paths to drug resistance and it’s important to understand how every cell in a cancer develops resistance. If you have a primary tumor that has a KRAS mutation, but a small cluster of cells that have a different mutation, you can target the larger group of cells and maybe you’ve killed all of those cells off, but if the smaller population has a totally different way of developing resistance, those cells can escape and continue to grow even after the first targeted therapy. When cancer metastasizes throughout the body, different areas of the body can develop different mechanisms of resistance. If we can understand how those processes work, we can better develop drugs to target these multifaceted diseases.

With rapid autopsies, you can look at a cancer’s life and see how it developed from a primary to metastatic disease. You can see the entire spectrum of the mutations, copy number changes, and expression changes that occurred at the end of life. And if, later, clinicians find a patient with a resistance mechanism previously identified in a rapid autopsy, they will have a better understanding of how that disease could further develop resistance, and maybe they will have a better idea of how to treat the patient effectively.

What interests you about the intersection between biology and computer science?

The act of discovery always appealed to me. I love that in all forms of science, you solve problems. When your code runs perfectly or you fix a bug, it feels very rewarding. You think, “I’ve created something new.”

In undergrad, I thought about going to medical school, but I didn’t want to work in a hospital. You can do a lot these days outside of the hospital and still really feel like you’re on the front lines and the cutting edge of research and be able to work on interesting problems. If you find a novel mutation that you target with a drug in a specific cancer type, you can help people in a really impactful way even though you’re not the doctor treating their disease.

What do you like about rowing?

I like the opportunity to be outside, and there are no distractions in the boat, so you get an hour or two to yourself out there. On a beautiful sunny May morning when it’s 65 degrees and the water is flat, it feels very refreshing to be out on the water. I love being a part of the rowing community, too, out on the Charles and everywhere else I have rowed. I like the feeling of progress I gain rowing in a single boat, too. You learn how to feel what you’re doing, and you can coach yourself like, “I just made a change in my body movement that made the boat go a little faster. Let’s see if I can keep doing that.” It’s problem-solving. 

I love that in rowing, every little thing adds up to a whole. Boat speed comes down to a combination of aerobic fitness, strength, rowing technique, training methods, and recovery. Sometimes it all feels like balancing a complex equation but every time I have a breakthrough, I feel compelled to go back for more.

Rowing is also very much a team sport. A couple of years ago, I was rowing in a quad [a boat with four people] and everyone had their own way of doing things. If you’re rowing together, you have to find a way to compromise, and that gets magnified when you are sitting in a boat and you have to do everything together at the same time or else nothing works. That’s important in the workplace as well.

How do you balance training and research?

As I've continued to row, it’s gotten more intense. I wake up at 5:30, go rowing for about two hours, and come home. Then I bike into the Broad and am there from 9 to 5. Afterwards I go home and do a second workout and then go to bed and do it all over again the next day. In the past few years, sometimes we’ve added a third workout as well.

Boston is one of the best places to be able to row competitively and also work in biotech. As someone who’s been rowing for a pretty long time, I think it’s really important to have a balance between two things that you find value in. If everything becomes about the sport that you’re doing — if your entire life hinges on the success that you’re going to have in your next race — I think it becomes a negative mindset. But being able to work in science, on something I’m really passionate about and that benefits the world and the community, is a really helpful outlet.

This will be my last year of rowing at this level, hopefully ending with the world championships. In the future, I hope I’ll continue to race for fun in the Head of the Charles. But I’ll prioritize my career a bit more, stop working out multiple times a day, and only go for a row in the morning. I think it’ll be nice to have some free afternoons, go to a happy hour for once and be able to spend more time with colleagues.

What are you most proud of? 

I’ve been proud of all of my rowing experiences. They put my name on a boat at MIT, and that helped me reflect on how I have made an impact in the sport. Hopefully I’ve been able to inspire younger rowers and show them that you can be capable of rowing at a high level if you want to put the work in, and that you can have both a career and athletic excellence. There are sacrifices along the way, but I don’t think it’s a binary decision. You shouldn’t have to choose one or the other. I’m definitely proud of the papers I’ve been on and the work I’ve done in Gaddy’s group. It’s tough, and I don’t know if I would always recommend it, but I’m so proud of having done both. 

What would you say to people who want to be a scientist and still maintain this level of athletic commitment?

Having a job like computational biology where you can work remotely and have some flexibility in the hours that you can work is really important. If you worked in the wet lab, I don’t think you would be able to do it. It gets cold in Boston and the river freezes, so you have to go elsewhere for training in the winter months. If you want to row with other people who live outside of Boston, you have to be able to pick up and take that opportunity. If you go to a world championship, you need to be on site for a week or two beforehand, but if you work remotely, you can work some of that time. 

I think being dependable at work — being someone that people know will get things done — I think that’s really helped me because when I have to work remotely in Europe for a little bit, my colleagues know that I will get back to them and will get the work done.

Seeing other people lay out a path for what I wanted to do inspired me to give it a shot. Other MIT alumni who rowed at a high level imparted to me that you can have a career when you’re 40, but you can’t compete at a world championships then. It has been really important to me to know that even though other people who graduated when I did are CEOs of companies, I’m still doing work that is impactful, and I’m doing something that is giving me this insane life experience that I wouldn’t get any other way, and meeting people that I wouldn’t meet any other way. I think learning how to work with other people and manage my different interests is a lesson I’ll take with me throughout my life.

a boat with four rowers on the water

"If you’re rowing together, you have to find a way to compromise, and that gets magnified when you are sitting in a boat and you have to do everything together at the same time or else nothing works," says Liz Martin (pictured on the right in a lightweight women's quad at the 2022 World Rowing Championships in Racice, Czech Republic). "That’s important in the workplace as well."