This week we’re talking to Vince Ramey, a scientist who joined DNAnexus in April 2012 and has been providing some biology context for the programming team working on the new DNAnexus platform.
Q: What do you do at DNAnexus?
A: The role has changed as the development stage of the new platform has changed. When we were in the R&D stage I was programming full time. Since the beta launch, now we’re engaging with some key people and I’m doing a lot more to help support some of these partnerships. I go out and meet with people and help them put their tools in the system; show them how it can change the way they do business. Part of my job is to get in the head of potential users — biologists or clinicians, say — and figure out what they need for data analysis. The scientist’s role includes things like: what kind of content do we need in terms of public data sets, how is someone going to use this tool, how do you display a variant?
Q: Where were you before?
A: I was doing a PhD in a biophysics program at the University of California, Berkeley. I was a genetics major in undergrad and took a detour from genomics and genetics in grad school. I joined the biophysics program because that’s where bioinformatics was housed. But my academic life took a turn when I got there and I was an electron microscopist for six years. I looked at the shapes of single proteins and tried to figure out how they work.
Q: What attracted you to DNAnexus?
A: DNAnexus was exactly what I was looking for: this small shop that was aiming really big; that was making something that was a general solution to a fundamental problem. It allowed me to do code and be technical but also to talk to people and engage on a lot of levels.
Q: What is something you’ve learned since joining that has surprised you?
A: My experience of programming was all in the academic setting; I taught myself a lot, and sometimes programmed with one or two other people. I went from that very basic understanding of what it meant to do a programming project to this shop in the heart of Silicon Valley, where there’s a cutting-edge understanding of what it takes to make something like this. I realized my conception of what it was to work on a software project was pretty rudimentary compared to the state of the art. There are so many moving parts, it’s amazing.
Q: If you could have any person’s genome sequenced, whose would it be?
A: Genghis Khan comes to mind. You could add a lot of factual information for today’s population in retrospect for a person like that — though I don’t think there’s a gene for pillaging so you probably wouldn’t find that.
Q: If you weren’t a scientist at DNAnexus, where would you be?
A: I’d pretty seriously consider building an off-the-grid house in the middle of nowhere. It’s an interesting problem, because you have to think about a lot of physical design to really pull it off — like how to catch water to meet your needs. The idea of doing something with recyclable components is appealing.
Q: Fill in the blank: There’s probably a genetic link to _________.
A: Thinking everything has a genetic link! This question, and the slippery slope it opens up, is frightening in a lot of ways. There’s a common perception that genetics has a huge influence on who you are, and it’s true for some specific things, but we’re much more complicated than that. The wise answer always seems to be, “everything has lots of causes.”
Q: Tell us one thing about yourself that nobody at DNAnexus knows.
A: When I’m in the zone I listen to the same couple of songs over and over. I’ll sit in the office and do that. When you find your groove, you gotta stick with it, you know?