Choosing a field of study is not an easy task, especially if you are standing at a crossroad and forced to choose between your major predilections. In my case, on one side there was the field of mathematics with its pure pursuit of logical reasoning and creative mind work. On the other side there was the realm of life sciences: an accumulation of multiple natural sciences with a goal to understand the complex, delicate and still largely unexplored molecular and cellular mechanisms that build up every living organism.
I embarked upon the field of molecular biology and my early steps where driven by a pursuit of independence and an eagerness to finally contribute to the scientific community. So after 3 years of studying I moved to the Max-Planck Institute of Biochemistry in Munich for my master thesis. There I was immediately made aware of the vast amount of possibilities and opportunities cutting-edge biological sciences offer. In Frank Schnorrer's lab I did not only enjoy working on a project including all liberties in planning and execution for the first time, but also relished the possibility to pick brains of other scientists, attend guest lectures and journal clubs, as well as my first conference. Basically, I spent my time there absorbing as much information as possible.
My studies focused on a genome-wide tissue specific RNAi screen, which systematically dissects the multistep-process leading to a functional muscle network in an intact organism. This gave me a first insight into complex systems and has also shown me the vast amounts of data modern methods and screens can produce. On the contrary, the methods to distill new insights out of them were at that point still rather limited.
So I went back to university, but instead of enrolling in a bioinformatics program, I decided to start with scientific computing. This would offer me a stronger mathematical, logical and algorithmic foundation, as well as the valuable skillset of high-performance programming and software development.
I thought I had finally achieved my goal and found a path into a new interdisciplinary future. However, I fell in love with my new studies: the intricate art and mysteries of computer sciences. So decided to completely leave the life science field behind.
Soon I realized I was not interested in the elusive "Answer to the Ultimate Question of Life, the Universe, and Everything" anymore. I had become more pragmatic and simply enjoyed the process of tackling complex problems. During our event series “vierfarben” I discovered that there is one thing that unites specialists of very different fields: the passion for their work (not the passion for their individual problem).
Later, during my recovery from a severe injury sustained during a high altitude mountaineering expedition, I started reevaluating a lot of things: In particular, my dedication to academic sciences turned out to be less altruistic than I had thought. It was rather driven by the selfish motivation to leave a mark in the world. However, while basic research is crucial for innovation but no university has changed our perception and everyday lives as much as pioneering companies, specifically advances in the IT industry.
My new studies offer highly complex problems and demand a lot of creativity. A big part of our work is purely focused on optimizing a solution, rendering it as exact, efficient or elegant as possible. While it is satisfying to be able to mathematically prove that your solution is near the theoretical optimum and correct, you are only working on the tiny cogs in the machinery. You are the expert in the background who everybody relies on.
Interestingly enough, I have been going down the second path of my initial crossroad for the last few years and I am rather thankful that I have had the opportunity to experience it. Although I was finally doing all the creative mind work I had been dreaming of, I fell into a slump because I realized I was missing something I was always striving for in life sciences – the bigger picture.
Where to go from there was the looming question. While sharpening my skills in competitive programming, it came to me: the answer had always been so close. The whole reason I started my computer science journey was to analyze data, to turn information, which on its own did not have any significant value, into a valuable source of insight. Our generation, in particular, is "drowning in information but starved for knowledge."
The NASA “Fishing for Fishermen” competition was the turning point. I finally found what I had always been looking for: Data Science – a relatively new and promising field. Here, toying with the data and the problem itself is equally important as tinkering under the hood of libraries as well as fine-tuning, adapting and developing new algorithms.
So in the end, all my different endeavors left me with a veritable treasure trove of experiences and knowledge, preparing me for a future in data sciences.