Mary Sweet

Majors: Biology, Hispanic Studies

Year of Graduation: 2013

Graduate School/Location: University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus, Denver, CO

Current Position/Location: Bioinformatics Post-Doc at the Colorado Center for Reproductive Medicine

Please give a brief description of your current position.

I’m a bioinformatics scientist at a fertility clinic and work with both the research and clinical genetics teams. I combine biology, genetics, statistics, and computer science to better understand and interpret the human genome, specifically addressing fertility-related issues from both a research standpoint and a clinical one. I work on various projects analyzing all types of genetic and genomic data to better understand the causes of infertility and to help make treatments more effective.

What path did you follow to get to your current position?

Entering CSB I was already passionate about genetics and had plans to go to graduate school. After graduating, I spent five years earning my PhD in Human Medical Genetics and Genomics. I joined a lab that studies inherited heart disease, and my research focused on understanding how gene expression changes in hearts from transplant patients contribute to heart failure. I discovered quickly that I enjoyed the computational side of genetics more than the bench work, so I molded my project towards this and took a few relevant classes in preparation for my post-graduate career.

What advice/suggestions would you have for students who might be interested in your career?

For students interested in graduate school or a career in science, seek out independent research opportunities. Not only is research experience an essential component of a grad school application in the sciences, but it’s also important to get a taste of what research is like outside of lab classes. My first independent research experience was through a REU (Research Experience for Undergraduates) summer program after my sophomore year, and it solidified my desire to continue on a research path in graduate school. If you’re unsure what area you would like to focus on, keep an open mind. In undergrad, I didn’t take any computer science, stats, or bioinformatics classes; although these would have prepared me better, they were skills I gained later in my graduate studies.

What skills are important in your field?

Aside from technical skills, being a bioinformatician is all about communication. I use programming languages to communicate with my computer; I take complex results and distill them into understandable figures, manuscripts, and presentations that effectively deliver our research findings; I work with my team members, who come from all different backgrounds, to plan projects and analyses suited to our research questions. Everything I do relies on successful communication! Other skills like problem solving, self-motivation, time management, and logic are also important.

What is the most satisfying/rewarding part of your position? Most challenging?

Bioinformatics is a dynamic field; technologies and methods are constantly advancing and improving, so there is always something to learn. New research questions often involve teaching myself new software tools or writing programs to analyze data. It’s challenging to keep up with an endlessly-evolving field, but I have always enjoyed learning! This is also the most satisfying part of my job; there’s nothing more rewarding to me than teaching myself something new or writing a new program and successfully implementing it in a project!

What activities/experiences were helpful at CSB/SJU (and elsewhere) in preparation for this career?

My liberal arts education prepared me so well for a career in research. My non-science courses were influential in teaching me how to think deeply and logically about all aspects of any given issue. I studied Hispanic Studies and spent a semester in Spain, which improved my communication skills immensely. Interestingly, knowing another language has also been useful in learning new programming languages.

Scientific research in genetics always interested me, so I sought out a diverse array of lab experiences in college. I spent two summers doing research at other universities, and my senior year I completed an honors thesis research project with Dr. Schaefer, which involved developing an independent research project and writing a thesis.

I also had two very beneficial jobs at CSB. I worked as a bio lab TA, which taught me how to lead lab projects and improved my ability to communicate scientific ideas to other students. I also worked in the Career Resource Center, which helped me develop leadership skills and practical skills like how to write a resume, interview, and network.

(March 2019)