A sharp bend
A sharp bend

A sharp bend

Alexander Nash, a software engineer at Synthace, London, completed his whole academic
curriculum in BioChemistry at Imperial College.

The undergraduate program didn’t contain much math at all. In the third year, when it was time
to choose amongst a variety of optional courses, Alexander picked a BioInformatics module,
though he was more interested in synthetic biology at that point, to acquire some basic skills in
programming. His Master’s project was entirely lab-based and had no computational
component, but they did have to write a model consisting of a system differential equations.
That was the most computational approach he had taken to that point. He ended up really
enjoying the course and when he picked an integrated PhD program (one year of Masters
followed by three of PhD) in Synthetic Biology, he noticed it included Systems Biology, which
involved a project as an introduction to Matlab and mathematical modeling.

No one else wanted to go down the computational route and everyone in the department had
given up teaching any real math to life sciences students. I’m always really envious of people
who are good at math. You can do whatever you want, really. Powerful knowledge to have!’

Around this time, as he was taking small steps towards the field of programming, he had to
complete an internship for his PhD. He learnt from a friend that the company she worked at,
Synthace, was accepting interns. When he first reached out to them, they were adamant about
training someone who did not have a Computer Science background and let them touch their
code. He still interned there and instead used the skills he had learnt during his curriculum. He
was eventually hired after he finished his PhD to work as a wet lab scientist.

Alexander’s desire to work on the computational side of things still hadn’t died down. He was
able to join a crossover team, composed of people who had formerly been scientists and
mathematicians, where they coded in Python. In the three months before joining, he did some
preparation on his own : courses, MOOCs, etc. Once he started working with the team, he still
had to learn on the job.

His team manager was a software engineer by trade, but had studied mathematics. He was
familiar with Alexander’s trajectory, as he had also learnt to code on the job. As a next step in
his career, he suggested going into Data Analytics, Computational Biology or a more traditional
software engineering route. Alexander opted for the latter and was able to find his way into the
software engineering team.

‘It was a combination of having picked up just enough skills along the way to take the next step
and having people who were supportive and understanding of my own journey. And being at a
company that was willing to let me have a bash, write crappy code and be forgiven.’

Many think that, not coming from a Computer Science or Applied Mathematics background, it’d
be hard to switch so suddenly. However, on a daily basis, mathematical ability has little to do
with what he does as a software engineer.

‘It’s all about being able to think about complex systems and being able to abstract out
complexity into something simple that you can build upon, which Biology had prepared me for

Taking such a leap after completing a PhD in a completely different field may seem like all that
time was spent for nothing. But it helped Alexander get the job he has currently so in some way,
he wouldn’t have had the option to intern at Synthace had he not done a PhD and therefore
would’ve greatly decreased his chances of getting hired there as a software engineer.
Doctorate programs also make you quite resilient. Working 14 hours straight, 7 days a week,
and not getting any results sure does build your character. Alexander persevered despite the
initial challenges.

‘I didn’t know any javascript and the entire stack was written in… javascript’

This sort of perseverance is very valuable.

‘It makes you robust to everything going wrong. It puts everything into perspective. I’ve never
felt anything was as hard as the PhD. Ever. Traumatizes you in a way that prepares you for the
professional world.
It also makes you less afraid to ask questions and appear stupid. The amount of times I’ve
involved random strangers from different departments to get a question answered!
You get used to asking for help and usually people are really happy to help, when they have the
time to.’

Working in academia vs industry
As a SAS platform, they have a dedicated product, which they build in house. They can
therefore really focus on what it is that they really want to build. Though the direction of the
product is driven by product managers, who are mostly in charge of talking to customers and
finding out what they want and translating that into features for engineers.

‘Our job is to translate those desires into code’

They can give feedback to the product managers if the project seems like a technical nightmare
or just not feasible at all, but don’t have the same creative freedom researchers have.

‘One trade off of working in industry is that you have less liberty to do whatever it is that you

Indeed, working at a company requires more structure. There needs to be some profit.
As opposed to working in academia where you have more flexibility, time and freedom,
depending on the kind of organization you belong to. Some laboratories or groups restrict
creativity more than others.
Industry teams are also more cohesive and have to work together as a team. Getting help from
coworkers is also easier since they are on the same page and have been working the same
thing with you.

‘In academia, you spend an hour and a half trying to explain what you’re trying to do, because
they’re not an expert in the very niche thing that you happen to be an expert in’.

One of the advantages of going to Imperial College was that the startup scene was strong. Both
the UK and Switzerland are quite dominant in this area amongst European nations; London in
particular is a tech hub.

‘A lot of people from my year and even more so from years below me realized they didn’t want a
traditional career and wanted to build a startup of some kind’.

He made a lot of the connections he has to industry at Imperial. In fact, the way he came to
know of the internship at Synthace was by knowing someone who had interned there before.

‘Being involved at university was really useful and continues to be useful. You get a lot of
information about what’s going on behind the scenes, at least locally.’

Side Quest

Host : ‘Would you say your experience as a bartender helped in your current occupation?’
Alexander : ‘I guess! That’s a fun one, no one’s ever asked me that. Generally speaking, there’s
a bit of a stereotype that an engineer’s not very good at talking to people… and sometimes
that’s true.
I’ve encountered a lot of people who think that being a whiz-kid isn’t enough and that you need
to know how to communicate and work as a team. It seems like most organizations don’t want
to hire a savior engineer who comes and fixes everything. They don’t actually want
primadonnas or mavericks running their engineering teams, it would be all ego and chaos! What
they really want is people who are nice and friendly and know how to explain what they’re doing
in simple terms. So yes, in some strange way, it was useful. Even when it was a bit chaotic and
everyone had already had six pints.’
H : ‘You could meet your future employer at a bar and slip your contact information in their
A : ‘Maybe if you really nail the perfect white russian, you’ll get that interview.’
H : ‘Do you ever foresee a reunion with Drosophila?’
A : ‘I think I’ve seen enough Drosophila for a lifetime.’
H : ‘You claim to have limited working proficiency in French on your LinkedIn. Could you give a
few words of encouragement [in french] to the students at EPFL?
A : ‘Bonne chance!’

by Flaminia Mignini

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