Eric Yen, Software Developer and Research Scientist

Eric Yen received his PhD in biology in 2017, focusing on protein dynamics during cell division. He is currently a software developer and research scientist. 

Q: What made you decide to do a PhD in biology?

In my undergrad, I didn’t know what I wanted to do after I graduated. I had an inkling for teaching in Cegep, and for that you need at least a Master’s. After that, I just transferred into a PhD. Ultimately, I chose biology because I really liked how in molecular and cell biology, cells have really cool mechanical properties that you can still explain in humanly understandable terms.

Q: Was your undergrad more in biology or physics, or biophysics from the start?

I did my undergrad at McGill as well, and I switched a bunch of times, including to pure biology, physics, and programming bioinformatics. And then, towards the end, I had almost all the requirements for Jacalyn Vogel’s new quantitative biology initiative.

Q: And then you stayed and worked with Dr Vogel. What was she like as a supervisor?

I know some supervisors are in depth, maybe they even want to go through your notebooks. But Jackie was more hands-off. If you were stuck or you weren’t producing results, then that’s when she would come and help you. And I like that⁠—I just like to do my own thing. And people say that how I think is very different and really weird. And Jackie is kind of the same, so for us it worked really well; we matched, a good fit.

Q: What were some of the big challenges in your PhD?

For me, it was writing in general. My biggest challenge was learning to love to write. I knew going in that I had to write my thesis, but that was the first thing I was dreading—it wasn’t graduating or doing good science, it was just writing the thesis.

Q: Is that one of the reasons that you fast tracked instead of finishing the Master’s, to avoid writing the Master’s thesis?

Yeah, I would not have wanted to have to write two theses!

Eric Yen discusses how writing only one thesis, instead of two, was an advantage in switching to a PhD.

But I had also met Jackie already and done some research in her lab as an undergrad, so when I did try to find a different supervisor, I didn’t actually know what I was getting into. Jackie’s lab did work I was interested in, and I had a paper published with them, so I didn’t want to switch and start from scratch again.

Q: And then, from Master’s to PhD?

I still hadn’t thought about what I wanted to do for a career, and I was enjoying what I was doing. So I stayed on. It was work I wanted to do at the time and I was having a lot of fun, so I stayed.

Q: Can you talk about your career now, and the kinds of work that you do?

I was asked at work to come up with a new title for what I do, and I can’t think of a good one, but I’m something like a…solution finder? What I’m doing now is completely different from what I did in my PhD. I do software development and computer network architecture, optimizing our software, generating new products for our users. We work on 3D rendering software for image analysis and image segmentation. I’m also working on a cloud based solution which is really useful for workshops and presentations, where you can’t bring a really powerful computer. Or, you can’t afford the stand alone software and machines, which can be half a million dollars. Instead, you could rent our software and use it in your web browser.

I do less writing, but I do go to conferences and present our work, so I still get to work on that, in addition to hardware and software. And at first I was so lost, with all these new technologies and acronyms, I was like, just give me a year and I’ll catch up!

Q: Was this the first job that you got after the PhD, then? That sounds like a steep learning curve! Were there skills from your PhD that helped?

The thing I learned the most was just, to learn. Because my supervisor didn’t necessarily have a solution in mind for problems, I had to go find my own solutions. I think I like learning⁠—I learned to program on GPUs, use the McGill cluster, and some of those skills I’ve used, but it’s not just ideas in the technical sense, but ideas in the learning sense too.

Q: Did you have software or hardware development jobs in mind during your PhD, then? How did you find your job?

It was the luckiest thing. I didn’t actually even have to look for a job⁠—the job came to me. Jackie wrote a CFI grant, and she needed to have business partners. At the time, towards the end of my PhD, some of my experiments relied on equipment from this grant. When one of the companies asked Jackie if she had any students graduating soon, Jackie suggested that I do an internship with them since I wasn’t really close enough to graduating yet. Jackie wrote a smaller grant to do a partnership with them, and I went and did research.

I did an internship with them for six months. They liked that I could solve problems. For example, I changed an element in their code so that it would compile much faster (like, five minutes instead of an hour, or a day!). They said, “We didn’t ask you to solve this, but you did! What about this other problem?” And then, after I fixed that, they figured, well, even though you’re a biologist, you have the technical skills. If you want a job, you can have one.

So, searching for a job, or having an interview beyond just an internship, I never had to do it. I was lucky⁠—I came in to Jackie’s lab at the right time—and I’m really happy where I am now.

Q: Is there anything that you wish that you knew coming into your PhD?

I don’t, but from what I’ve seen from other people, you should focus right from the beginning. I finished my PhD in five years, and I think the only difference is that in the first year or two I was really focused. In the first year, you can think, oh yeah, five years, that’s a lot of time! A lot of people in their first year are still transitioning from undergrad, or don’t have the drive to finish. But five years go by fast! And some people are still transitioning after 3 or 4 years, or don’t have that drive to finish towards the end, especially when it has been six or seven years.

Many thanks to Eric for sharing his narrative! You can find him on LinkedIn.

This interview took place in April 2020. Interviews are edited by the TRaCE McGill Editorial team for length and clarity before publication.