By HANNAH MARTIN
Maths had always been Luis’ passion – but he wanted to use his skills to solve real-world problems. That quest led him to idalab
What did you do before you joined us?
I joined idalab when I was doing my mathematics master’s, as well as tutoring. Since maths was my passion, I enjoyed teaching it to younger students, especially those who were eager to learn.
During my master’s I decided pure maths is fun but not what I want to do as a profession. I was looking for opportunities to apply my knowledge in analytical thinking and problem solving. Furthermore, I really wanted a role where I could prove that my solutions work not just on the whiteboard but also in a real environment, with all the obstacles and problems that entails.
idalab looked like a good fit – and so it proved. I was soon working on interesting challenges and got the responsibility to prove that my expertise really mattered.
What is your current project and what is your role here?
Over the course of a year I usually work on several internal and client projects. Right now, I’m working on the internal PROTUCT project; it’s our own drug target identification platform that’s heavily based on the machine learning and data mining techniques we’ve developed through the years. The platform helps us to connect and analyse chemical and biological data from open and proprietary data sources.
I am heavily involved in both workstreams of the project. On one side, I work developing the platform and translating knowledge from previous projects into code; on the other, I help with the business development and marketing.
I haven’t worked on a project this size before, so there are a lot of interesting challenges for me in areas such as software development and data engineering. I’m also learning how to develop business strategies for new products and how to reach out to potential new clients.
On which project did you learn the most?
Probably when we built a prototype of a web application for modelling biochemical signalling pathways for the R&D department of a multinational pharma and diagnostics company. These pathways are graphs describing the chemical reactions in living organisms (such as humans) that are used for signal transferring within an organism. They are used to gain insight on how diseases work and how they can be treated. However, gathering the necessary knowledge for these pathways is pretty complex, as it’s spread across many data sources and often needs field experts for interpretation.
The prototype I built was used to find applications of pathway modelling and to conduct further research on the requirements for such a tool. It is now already used in everyday R&D work. Next, we will use these insights to build a production tool based on the prototype.
I found this project especially interesting because it gave me the chance to build a complex graph-based web application from scratch based on React, a framework I’d been eager to use for a long time. Having support from team members, such as Hong and Rouven, helped me a lot in choosing the right tools and getting a good initial understanding of the tools we were considering.
On the biological side, I had the chance to work with biology experts to gain a deep understanding of the challenges of signalling pathway modelling. As someone without an academic biological background, I’m keen to learn more about all aspects of life sciences and how it connects with AI – as well as the equally challenging business side of developing new therapies.
What does a typical day/week at idalab look like for you?
It may sound like a cliche, but there is really no typical day for me at idalab. The picture shows my calendar on a recent Monday during my work on PROTUCT.
Every Monday starts with our weekly meeting, in which we all update each other about the current projects and other developments. This is especially important when most of us are working from home and news spreads slower through the team. Apart from our weekly talks on Friday, this is the only regular meeting I have in my calendar.
During the day I blocked out two slots for coding. These focus time sessions help me to get things done quicker. Last thing before lunch, I contacted one of our external service providers to introduce them to a topic we might need their support on later on.
In the afternoon I had a coffee break with a colleague. Over the past year I’ve often scheduled coffee meetings with colleagues, just to reconnect and learn about what they’re working on.
At 3:30pm I had a one-to-one with one of my mentees, which happens very frequently. I use this time to learn about what they’re working on and anywhere they might need more help or guidance. Normally, 30 minutes is enough, but in Covid times I prefer to have more time, so we can talk about anything else that comes up. After this, I prepared some documents for our recurring performance reviews, in which we evaluate the development of the working students and plan how they can be further supported.
The last meeting of the day was an update call with a client, in which we discussed how to continue a project in the next phase.
What do you enjoy most about our team culture?
Something I realised early at idalab is that team culture is not an afterthought. It’s understood as essential that we enjoy work and the time we spend together. And so our events are not booked through specialised agencies. Instead, all events are planned in internal teams and we try to make each one better than the last.
When I was a working student, I suggested having a sports event. These days, it’s an idalab tradition – paired with food and drinks afterwards.
I’m very much looking forward to the moment when we can all come back into the office together. In the past year I’ve really learned the value of having nice colleagues around you while working – something I maybe took for granted before.
How are you being supported in your development?
Our personal development is planned around a detailed competence framework that lists the different skills we need in our jobs. This includes everything from client communication to AI methodology, technical skills and more. The framework gives me full transparency about my current capabilities and helps me to plan how I want to further develop.
In my quarterly one-to-one with our managing director, Paul, we discuss where I am in my career development and what I want to focus on in the future.
Probably the biggest impact on my development at idalab was getting personal responsibility early on – and the chance to show and develop my own skills. As a working student, I was already included in developing our own methodology training – and now I lead that project.
When I started working full time I also took over a research project we’re working on with partners at Deutsche Bahn and Deutsches Forschungszentrum für Künstliche Intelligenz (DFKI). Shortly after, I was leading a work stream as a dedicated data scientist in the pharma company project I mentioned before.
All these experiences have helped me develop faster than any training or class could do. Being in new situations and responsible for my own work, while still having the opportunity to get help and feedback from more experienced colleagues, is an extremely rewarding experience and an experience most people probably do not have in their first years of work.