Every now and then we like to talk to someone who grew up in Oregon, to hear about their engineering or CS story. We do this to make it easier to see just how many people go into either field, and just how many paths there are which lead into it.
Jonathan Carlson’s path isn’t quite what you might expect. He didn’t even touch CS until he was in college. His roots were actually in Biology and, specifically, in health:
Biology was a passion for me because I loved understanding how we work at the minute level. In a sense, discovering how the most amazing machines ever contrived works. Viruses in particular are fascinating because of how they have evolved to evade our immune system and how our immune system has responded…and the immediate effect this cat and mouse game has on our health.
This is pretty common in engineers and computer scientists! Nine times out of ten you’ll find that they were attracted into the field by more than just the field itself, but their interests in something else. Jonathan’s passion is helping the world be healthier by understanding the human body and defeating nasty diseases—most engineers have passions separate from engineering and CS.
In fact, when we asked him about his earliest memories tied to engineering, Jonathan had a lot to say. But it’s worth reading:
Well, I really decided to do science. And computer science, and statistical modeling/machine learning in particular turned out to be a great means to do so, and were also intensely interesting in their own right. In a sense, it’s engineering with the specific purpose of advancing science—and in my case, global health. . . Computer science really hooked me because of its logic and it’s use of abstract yet orderly thinking.
AP Biology my junior year of high school was really what got me interested in science in general and biology in particular. . . Computer Science really came out of the blue when I took intro to CS my freshman fall (despite, or perhaps because of, warnings in the prospectus against freshmen taking it fall term) for no real reason. As it turns out, the two interests merged and now I use computer science to study viruses.”
And you’ll find this out too, when you talk to engineers or computer scientists in the field. They found out that the best way to pursue their passions is through either CS or engineering, and so they wind up learning those trades to get there.
Coincidentally, Jonathan wound up getting his Bachelors degree in “Biology with a Computer Science modification,” and went on to get a Masters and finally a Doctorate in Computer Science. And now, he’s doing something called Bioinformantics, which he described as “biology with computers instead of wet labs.” Which is good for him, because he’s a self-proclaimed disaster in wet labs.
And Jonathan is pretty pleased with where he’s wound up. His first job was at Microsoft Research, and that’s where he’s planning on staying put:
My work these past 3 years has been an extension of my PhD dissertation, which essentially boils down to studying how HIV evolves and how we might design a vaccine to which HIV cannot adapt. As part of this work, I get to develop cutting edge statistical modeling techniques, while working with world class researchers on 5 different continents (still looking for collaborators in South America and Antarctica!), and diving head long into the theoretical part of the biology (and letting those collaborators do the wet experiments!). It’s a real thrill to be working with so many great scientists to advance our understanding of the immune system and viruses in general and HIV in particular.
Jonathan, just like so many others, decided to pursue his passions through computer science. It’s the way to go; whether you’re into physics, robotics, biology, or even something like languages, you’ll find that there’s a CS-related degree and job waiting for you. Who designs buildings, airplanes and cars? Mechanical engineers who are great with physics. Who makes exoskeletons for the handicapped? Electrical engineers who like robots. Who works on curing HIV? Jonathan Carlson, a computer scientist who studies biology. And who do you think works on Google Translate? A computer scientist whose interests are in languages.
In part two, you’ll hear more about his college experience, his personal hobbies, and what he thinks you need to know about college.