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Alexa Dowdell

Undergrad: Willamette University
Internship: Providence St. Joseph Health
Currently at: Providence St. Joseph Health

How did you find yourself at Oregon? What about the program attracted you?

Upon completion of my undergraduate degree I found myself questioning what the next move was to make in my life. I majored in computer science but quickly realized although the job opportunities would be there, I did not want to sit at a desk all day doing something I didn’t fully enjoy like debugging code for instance. I found myself at Oregon because it was relatively close to the university I completed my undergraduate degree at in Salem, OR. The program was attractive because of the short time commitment of 1.5 years, as well as the provided training in a work environment to apply the skills picked up in the 9 month intensive class portion of the program. The program gave me the opportunity to build on the computational knowledge I already had and apply it towards relevant biological problems. To top it all off the program stands out since a thesis is not required to complete the program, which makes for a very nice and less stressful transition into the workplace post-internship.

What was the intensive summer like for you?

The summer intensive was exactly as described “intense.” Even with prior programming experience and an extensive background in statistics, the summer was very challenging. I look back at it now in awe of what I was capable of doing over the summer, which included becoming fluent in three additional programming languages (Python, Unix, and R), doing successful library preps without ever pipetting before and completing endless assignments that all touched on different aspects of biology without taking anything more than intro biology in the past. All of the stress is worth it as it ultimately helps the cohort bond and become closer because these are the people that will help you become successful in the program and beyond.

Where was your internship?

My internship was at the Earle A. Chiles Research Institute associated with the Providence Cancer Institute in Portland, OR. The main project I worked on was a collaboration with Omics Data Automation in Beaverton, OR, so I was given the flexibility of splitting my time between locations as I felt necessary to meet with and utilize the skills of some very knowledgeable individuals.

What was your internship like? What are you responsible for? What is a typical day like?

I had an awesome internship experience. The main project I was brought in to work on was a collaboration with Omics Data Automation, which is a start up company founded by former Intel folks to help with database management and machine learning. The goal was to use de-identified data from cancer patients at Providence, specifically H&E images, genomic panels, and electronic health records to build predictive models, so researchers can ask questions like given a patient was diagnosed with a certain subtype of cancer and mutation present, how did patients with and without that mutation respond to an immunotherapy regimen? Along with that project, I was also given multiple side research projects at any given time to perform RNAseq or 10x analyses. I was responsible for generating a lot of the numbers and plots going into the results section of papers and grants. A typical day is always a busy but rewarding 8 hrs, with a flexible start and end time and the ability to work from home occasionally.

Do you feel the program prepared you for the internship? In what ways?

I feel like the program prepared me very well for my internship. The summer intensive as well as the other 6 months of classes move at such a quick pace that I obtained a vast amount of exposure and knowledge to different fields of biology while working under demanding time constraints. That being said, when I transitioned into my internship I was completing tasks at the pace I was as if I was still in classes, which impressed and pleased my boss with how fast the turn around time could be. Routine presentations during the program also prepared me well with communicating science and the technicalities of my work to non-scientists, which happens every day interacting with my coworkers who are IT specialists, software engineers, administrative assistants, etc. The courses for professional communication also prepared me with the ability to present myself with a strong resume, be approachable, and develop the ability to capitalize on networking opportunities amongst the institution and other research collaborators.

How did your internship prepare you for your current position/career path?

The internship directly prepared me for my current position as a bioinformatic scientist in cancer research by allowing me the time to understand the culture of the institution and become familiar with the workplace environment before becoming a permanent employee. The work I was doing on a multitude of research projects was the same workload I’d be continuing to do in my current position providing a smooth transition. I was hired into the bioinformatics scientist position for the Earle A. Chiles Research Institute that requires a Master’s degree as well as academic or industry experience, in which the internship provided and helped fulfill both. Therefore, because of the internship and specifically the connections with individuals I made, as well as the analyses I’ve done on ongoing research projects, I was given the opportunity to fill a position within the scope of bioinformatics, in a biological field translational to humans and that has the potential for significant upward growth.

Do you have any advice for prospective students?

Dabble in programming as much as you can! The more familiarity you have with programming, the more efficient of a bioinformatician you can become.