How I went from a Neuroscientist to an AI practitioner – Part I

Career change is often thought of as a tough act to pull off. It is especially difficult to transition from a highly specialize field to another. However, everything happened for a reason, whether you know it or not. I started college as a computer science major for about a year, then I was forced to change to Biology, due the Dot Com bubble around the year of 2001. My parent heard the news that internet companies fell one-by-one. And they thought my computer science is not a traditional, stable career path to follow. (Of course they were proven wrong many years later).

When I go home for the summer, my parents and I had a talk. And they convinced me that I should change my major to Biology and possibly becoming a doctor. At that time, I was weak-minded, and didn’t want to displease my parents. And the fact that my college room and board was paid by my parents didn’t help. I reluctantly changed my major and started taking biology related class. I didn’t waist too much time since I took some AP class in high school and was able to test out of Chem 101 and Physic 101. I have to say that Biology was not something I hate. In fact, it was my best interest before my dad bought a computer when I was 11. So, I chucked along with the courses. Got my fair share of As and Bs, and of course, a bad grad for Organic Chemistry.

Bioinformatics was a hot topic at the time. With my limited programming skills, I was able to get a fellowship in computational biology from Howard Hughes Medical Institute. With a few classes in protein folding and predicting tertiary structure from protein sequence, I learned the basic knowledge to BS my way through college. Then I met my undergraduate advisor, who is interested in programming and nifty projects. We painted the rat’s paws with colored markers and videotaped their footsteps through Plexiglas from underneath. We wrote a C++ plugin in iMovie that tracked the footsteps and how faster they turned following various experiments. It was a blast working with him and it seemed like a fun project for him. I wrote my undergraduate thesis on the topic, although it seems like unpublishable junk looking at it now.

Then it’s time to prepare for the dreaded MCAT. I knew I wasn’t going to study enough on my own, so I paid a hefty amount to join a prep class. The teacher is a current Med school student that got a good score. He showed us how to prepare and do practice tests. But he also said Med school is not for everyone because he constantly practices involuntary fasting and became an insomniac. I did as many practice test as I could, but because I was not enthusiast about it, I didn’t get a good score. The eight-hour test was not that bad, as I had those tests then I was in China, as middle schooler. It was good enough for me to get into a D.O. school, but didn’t want to be a primary doctor. The chance of specialize in Radiology or Neurology was below 10%. And it was not good enough for me get a M.D. I later found out that being Asian did not help either. I wasn’t going to be one of those Hispanic female applicants who got in with a 21 on MCAT.

I wasn’t disappointed when I found out I don’t have much of a chance with a dismal 27 on MCAT.  I was lost for a while. I got a simple gross room processing job at a pathology lab, then applied for graduate school. With my research background in college and honor with undergraduate thesis, it wasn’t too hard to get offers from multiple schools. It was years later I found out there is a good reason for those programs to offer stipend, because there is no job prospect even with a Ph.D. So, then I choose the best state school I can get into and started the long, long journey of graduate school.  Without too much detail here, I suffered through 7 years of graduate school, with many sleepless nights, and got my degree. I did learn a lot of things during that period, mostly built my resilient character, but also learned what hell was like. Perhaps it wasn’t like hell physically, but it was definitely mental hell.

With no marketable skill outside of rat brain and spinal cord surgery, my only choice was to become a postdoc and give a shot at becoming a faculty. There were two ways of finding such jobs. One is to send CV (resume) to every professor who is trying to find a postdoc. The other is focus on the lab you like to join, and write custom, specific letter to the few labs you are looking for. I was told the second option is how you find jobs in the industry, and I know people who got jobs that way. So I tried that. I researched the hand-full of labs I want to go to, read their papers, and thought about specific experience I would like to try if I joined their lab. I asked other people to proofread my email. And… Nothing. No answer. No rejection emails.

So I was force to go to the first option. I send out as many applications I could. Finding every ad on Science, Nature, or any other journal or website I can get my hands on. Three people returned my email. One said her research area is too different. One was really nice and asked for a follow-up skype interview. And one asked for a phone interview. The second guy talked about his research and promised he was going to take me. He described the surrounding area and planned out where I can rent to be closest to the lab. Then no contact for a month. During this time, the third guy called. We talked about the projects I will be working on and asked about what I can do. He liked my surgical skills, and offered me a position the next day. He didn’t give me much time to think, so I talked to some friends and took the job. It was a world class institution, and I didn’t have much of a choice. Two days later, the second asked for another skype session, but had to reject. “Dude, where were you for a month?”

Arrived at a major metropolitan for my job, I started to experience some new things. The professor like my surgical skills and promised to help me publish some papers soon. I got to do a little more programming than my graduate work and learned more concepts about signal processing. I had to learn how to apply linear algebra and partial differential equations to solve research problems. This was beneficial for getting an AI career. Big data became the hot topic, and so did Neural Networks. People started talking about data scientist jobs and I started looking in that direction as well. I looked for various boot camps in my area and tried out the “free” ones. They are hard to get into and I either failed initial interview or didn’t pass the screening process. But I kept trying for 3 years.

One day, DeepMind published their paper on Alpha Go. It was amazing! I used to play Go as a child. Although I never even got to 1 Dan at the amateur level, I could beat the best computer simulation easily. I knew this is hard to program. So, when the paper came out, I was blown away, but skeptical. Of course, I didn’t know what a reinforcement network is and only pretend to understand how it work. Then they announced they are going to play with Lee Sedol, a top ranked player in the world. Nobody though they would win. I stayed up 3 am in the morning to watch all 5 games. When the first game finished, my mouth dropped. I know Lee didn’t have a chance. The fact that he won the 4th game was nothing less than miraculous, and shows Alpha go still had weaknesses.

This is the day I realized AI is the future. This is the day I decided I want to do this for the rest of my life …

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