In this blog post, we feature an Interview with Dr. Robyn Shuttleworth, Computational Biologist at Altos Labs.
When did you first become interested in mathematics and biology?
I was interested in both math and biology when I was in high school and I actually visited both departments when trying to decide which degree I wanted to apply for. Ultimately, the head of the math department swayed me during his presentation with one sentence, “On average, math graduates earn 10% more than any other graduate…”. I was always a bit apprehensive in telling people that was my reason for pursuing a math degree, but I realize now that it was the tip of the scale I needed to opt for math over biology and having money as a motivator is nothing to be ashamed of.
What does your current role entail and what makes you passionate about your work?
I am currently a computational biologist researching aging and cellular reprogramming and rejuvenation. I have spent my career switching research focus, from cancer cell modelling to cryobiology, and I have again found a different path to follow in cellular reprogramming. I find biology fascinating in that you can find a lot of common processes and observations between fields, and I greatly enjoy trying to build the bridges that will ultimately result in some awesome scientific advancements.
What made you pursue your current career path?
I studied accounting in my first couple of years in undergrad and thought I might end up in finance when I graduated, however we had a couple of applied mathematics courses in my third year and I loved them. I found myself in an ideal position: I rediscovered my love for biology, and I was able to combine it with my passion for mathematics. When it came to finishing my bachelor’s degree, I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do. One of my lecturers told me about an open PhD project and I jumped at the chance to apply. I felt I’d only scratched the surface of math biology and having the opportunity to continue learning just felt right.
What does a typical work day or week look like for you?
I have found a huge shift from my daily life as a postdoc to working within a company. I used to spend my days working alone with a few scattered meetings throughout the week, however now, I attend many seminars and collaborative meetings during the week, with these taking anywhere from an hour to five hours a day. It sounds like a ton of time, but I find a lot of these meetings are crucial in helping me develop ideas and methods for different projects.
How did you find your current position?
I was coming to half-way through my postdoc and had seen a lot of chatter on Twitter about working in academia vs. industry and I was hoping to connect with some people who had experiences in both. On my search I came across a post looking for computational scientists with a mathematics/biology background and I reached out. A couple of messages and emails, a seminar, and many meetings later, I found myself preparing to leave academia.
What skills that you learned in graduate school are the most useful for your current job?
I started my postdoc six months before the Covid-19 pandemic, so I worked from home for the most part - around 3 years. During this time, I was able to attend and present at many conferences and I think it greatly improved my presentation skills. I thoroughly enjoy sharing my work and the most valuable skill I developed was to appreciate and own the silence (perhaps much easier over zoom, but I swear it’s completely changed my presentation style!).
Do you have any advice for someone considering a career like yours?
I absolutely recommend a postdoc if you are on the fence about what you would like to do next. I chose a postdoc that took me away from the topics of my PhD and into a new field, giving me the chance to learn new biology whilst also utilizing my skills in mathematical modeling. Pursuing a postdoc in a different field allowed me to work on fun new projects and gave me a freedom to explore skills I was interested in obtaining for my own personal development. This included building a teaching portfolio, establishing collaborations, and applying for funding to host workshops and research seminars.
What do you like to do in your spare time outside of work?
I enjoy reading and playing video games - anything that takes me out of reality for a short while. Since I’ve moved a few times now, I love exploring new places and finding the perfect spots for some coffee and cake!
Any final comments or advice?
I am a huge advocate for using social media to your advantage, places like Twitter and LinkedIn are fantastic for finding relevant research and making connections. I also highly recommend building a website to showcase your work!