From academia to start-up: fluid dynamics to biology

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Synthace Team Interview with Senior Data Platform Engineer Lauren Fovargue

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(Synthace) So to start, tell us a little bit about yourself.

I’m Lauren, I am from the US, and I lived all over the east coast – New York, Florida, North Carolina, and New York again before moving here to London almost four years ago. I started my career in engineering, but then I quickly switched over to Maths. After my Bachelors I decided that there was still more to discover so I went on to do a PhD in Maths (which was in numerical algorithms for physics equations). After that, I did a post-doc in Computational Fluid Dynamics (CFD) where again, I was writing physics code for fluid dynamics. I found CFD to be very dull because the big challenges in that field are concerned with achieving five and six digits of accuracy on the airfoil, which is quite important because we all fly in planes, but I found it to be uninspiring. So I decided to take a position that was much more “messy” in what it was trying to use computers to understand, and so I went into researching computational electro-mechanics of the heart. These were 3D physical simulations of the beating heart, where we virtually applied a pacemaker to the heart to see how that would affect patient outcome. They were patient-specific models; they were dynamic, really detailed and you didn’t have ninety-degree corners and straight edges, everything was very messy, but exciting, because we’d stepped into the world of biology.

Do you see yourself as a mathematician, a coder, an engineer…?

If I had to summarise based on my career path to this point I would have firmly said I was a computational scientist because I was using computers, computation, numerics and coding to answer scientific questions. I would spend 90% of my time programming, but at the end of the day I was doing research science as well. I was looking at what the simulations told me, and then I was making estimations about patient outcome based on that. I was doing a scientific process, so I think up until this current position I would have called myself a computational scientist.

I think at the moment because I’m not active in science I would I consider myself…let’s just go with my title here at Synthace. It’s Senior Data Platform Engineer. I think it’s a good title because more of my focus is on facilitating the scientific work-flow with end to end data ingestion and integration. It’s something that I had a lot of experience of in both building software for, and as a first-hand user in my last five years, but it’s also something that I just feel very inspired and passionate about. I always wanted to make tools for scientists. I didn’t particularly like doing the science myself; I wanted to be the one making the tools for scientists. That’s where I have found the most pleasure in my career.

While I think part of that is a desire to engineer, this is more about being in that community because that’s what people are talking about and that’s what people are interested in, and it facilitates a natural dialogue. That way, I don’t have to muster interest in what somebody is doing because that’s naturally there, meaning I can be better at my job because I can ask questions that are relevant. I think what I do on a day to day basis is not necessarily all that different from people who work in other realms of the software industry, but the purpose and the dialogue are different, the finer points are different. So even though I probably would be doing roughly the same thing A) I don’t think I’d be very good at it because I wouldn’t be interested in it and B) you’re just not surrounded by the type of people who are interested in that.

The context is very important, then.

Yes, context is very important.

Going back to when you first came across Synthace, what was it that initially attracted you to the company?

I never wanted to work for a start-up when I started my job search after my last postdoc. When I decided to leave academia, which I’d been in for many, many years (I like to call myself a recovering academic!) I wanted to work for a medium-sized company. I knew that I wasn’t going to fit well with a large company because I’m energetic, opinionated and good at what I do, so being somebody who’s supposed to push the same button over and over all day would not have worked for me. So I knew I wanted to work for a medium size company. I’m on a visa; I was looking for some stability. All of my friends who were going to start-ups had gone to 2-8 person start-ups where they were either spending most of their time begging for money or working ninety hours a week trying to get bought by somebody. I didn’t want that.

The things that Synthace overcame for me on the start-up front were as follows:

One – I did not want to work for a start-up who did not have a proper CEO. I did not want to work for a start-up where the CEO was the ‘daddy ‘of the product. I don’t think that’s a good model and I didn’t want to join a company and then have it fail and have me get kicked out of the country, or join a company and potentially join a dictatorship. That was a big plus for Synthace in that Tim is a proper CEO who did not make this product from its inception.

The second one was I didn’t want to work for a small start-up which Synthace overcame. It’s more of a growth (scale-up) company. I didn’t want to have to ask people for money as part of my job, and it’s not, which is great.

The third one is, I didn’t want to join a company which was just exploiting youthful endurance because I very much put my heart into what I do and the idea of working somewhere that’s just trying to burn their people’s energy and get the most out of them was not a culture I was looking to join. I wanted a place where people were valued, where people worked hard but were looked at as experts versus energy. There was one more thing that Synthace overcame for me on the start-up thing – it was because it was stable. It’s pretty evident that Synthace is monetarily stable and there’s a growing market for what we are selling.

And now that I work here one of the things I very much value about Synthace is that there is a real long-term focus amongst everyone I work with. It is a company built by people who genuinely care about what they do and want a great place to be and to do that thing. The tone of the company is very much one where people care a lot about not losing their drive, and motivation and interest and passion. I also really get a lot from being invested in something. I’m lucky to do something that I’m both good at and naturally invested in and so for me working is very much part of my life. I want to continue to do what I’m doing as far as I can, so being in a company who’s not just like ‘Ooh, are we going to get bought yet?” is very important for me.

Is that because the overall mission of the company is so compelling?

Yeah, I think so. I think everybody is honestly invested in what we’re trying to do. I think we wouldn’t be as good as we are at it if that wasn’t true. It makes us better at not getting bogged down in the details of work life because at the end of the day I think we all care that what we’re trying to achieve gets achieved.

So what’s a typical day for you?

On a typical day, I almost always spend a few hours programming. Maybe every other day I spend at least an hour or two with the wet side because I sit between the biologists and the tech team. Whether that is consulting with them on how we’re going to do a project or trying to come up with a new feature that has more to do with the bio side than it does with the tech architecture. I talk to them about all sorts of things, and it’s one of my favourite parts of my job.

On the tech side, I sit with the back-end developers. In that, I also spend a decent amount of time interacting with the front-end on any given day because we need to get things done and we ask each other questions etc.

I’d say for the most part my days are a balance between discussions with people and programming, and all the things that go with programming – sometimes it’s writing documentation, sometimes it’s testing, sometimes it’s re-writing code or trying new software.

So which technologies do you work with here?

On an average day, I program in at least two languages. Most days I program in three and sometimes four or more. The three staples are : Python, C# and Go. Sometimes I spend 3 or 4 days in one language – a real treat!

As far as technologies go, I work with things like Kubernetes, Google Cloud Services, Microsoft Azure platform and our internal platforms. I work with Jupyter notebooks and visualisation packages that go with that, such as Bokeh or PixieDust.

I work with data, in all aspects, data handling, data management, data processing, data integration and data analysis.

Sometimes I work with front-end software because sometimes I need to mock up the calls to the back-end before passing off the APIs.

How much of that had you used before?

I’d written in Python and C++ before but not C#, so that wasn’t a huge transition. I’d never written in Go before. But once you know one compiled language you sort of know them all. You get quicker at the syntax; you just have to look more stuff up in the beginning. So now I don’t have to really Google things for Go in the way I did when I first started learning. I had never worked with Kubernetes or the cloud platform services actually, so that’s been entirely new.

Large parts of what I do was new to me when I walked in the door. I think I had a lot more translatable skill but not direct skills, so a lot of the software engineering is new and was a huge appeal for taking this position. I’d been a bit of a chameleon before this and written in all sorts of languages and it was a case of using what was needed to get the job done. I was used to switching between languages. But I think that works here because the point is not to sit there and just bang out code using the best C++ libraries you can find, instead you need to be able to think and solve problems, not just execute solutions.

Being able to be super adjustable and take on new skills is important because I think if you’re used to “this is my wheel house and I’m not moving out of it” then Synthace is a tough environment for that.

How would you describe the working environment here?

It’s very dynamic. There is a mix of disciplines. It’s very motivated and inspired. There’s not a meeting I ever have with people where I feel like I need to motivate them to sit in the meeting. People tend to be very naturally motivated, so it’s more about flushing out big ideas and trying to get to the solution as fast as possible. Which I think is why we can do what we’re trying to do and why we’ve managed thus far. People don’t have to get over that hurdle of needing motivation.

The culture is diverse because everybody’s got a different background. To me I very much see the people here as very skilled. I very much see everybody as people whom I could not do what they do, and so I see them for the value of the sphere that they’re in the expert in. That’s nice because we have a lot of highly skilled people. When I talk to a front-ender or when I talk to a biologist l know I’m talking to somebody who really understands what they’re doing. And then it’s great to see them get inspired off having a conversation with me. That merging of different expertise really makes some cool stuff. And I think that’s what happens in this culture. We have a lot of people who really have spent a lot of time and effort thinking about their world meaning that when they come together, we can put some good stuff together.

What’s your favourite thing about working at Synthace?

Probably the culture and the people. I do like my mac too – I’m not going to lie!

You know I think we’re a bit closer knit than just colleagues who see each other and then walk away and pretend they don’t exist. It’s nice because I feel like we cover a big space for people. There are some people who are more social, some people who want to go running, some people who don’t want to do any of that but want to go to lunch every so often and some people who prefer a more 9-5 schedule. They’re all part of it and they all belong. Everybody does know each other pretty well and there is a very comfortable dynamic.

I like that about the culture. I like that people let themselves hang out a little bit more and there’s not this air of ‘I’m a professional person so I’m going to mince my words’. Although everybody here has different things that motivate them and different things that they get out of this job, you don’t get the impression anybody is trying to put on a front. I don’t ever have to question if something somebody says to me is genuine. It’s easy to have a have a real conversation with people. Which is great from a professional standpoint because you get past all the nonsense.

If you had one message to send to someone who was thinking about applying or coming to Synthace, what would it be?

If you really feel excited about what we’re trying to achieve and if you want to be in a fast-paced environment, in a dynamic environment where you get a lot of say in what happens as well as a lot of responsibility then this is the place for you. If you feel invested or excited about what we’re doing and you really want to dig in and get things done, then you should definitely come check us out.

To find out more about careers at Synthace visit our careers website

About the author

I'm a Senior Data Platform Engineer at Synthace, and I've always happily lived at the boundary of biology and software. This started with my Ph.D. in computational mathematics, focused on biological fluid-structure interaction algorithms at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, and continued into my post-doctoral work in bio-inspired computational fluid dynamics at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and biomedical engineering and King's College London. Watching and aiding in the merging of biology and engineering has always been and continues to be my passion, and at Synthace I couldn't have found a better place to see that dream become reality
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