In Conversation With Ozge Yoluk

In Conversation With Ozge Yoluk

Growing up, Ozge Yoluk hated computers. Now, she’s a skilled coder and uses computer science every day at her job as a computational biologist.

How do biology and coding intersect? Let’s let Ozge tell us her story to find out.

Ozge was born and spent her childhood school years in Turkey. The first time she ever used a computer was when she attended a private school for one year on a scholarship.

“Originally,” she says, “I hated computers because I hated the computer teacher at that school. He could not relate to the fact that I never had any interaction with a computer before. My family had no use for a computer and were not wealthy to have luxury gadgets in our home that we had no use for.”

It wasn’t until Ozge began studying for a bachelor’s degree in molecular biology, that she finally got her own computer – out of necessity. It was required if she was going to successfully complete her coursework. Even then, she and computers didn’t quite jive.

That is, until misogynist comments from a local tech made her determined to learn everything there was to know about running and repairing a computer.

Her family friend had come to their house and set up the computer. He would also make repairs to it. “Once he [the computer tech] was at our home to fix the computer and he made a really horrible comment that me, as the woman of the house, kept useless CDs and that women don’t know anything about how computers work. So, I told myself I will never get help from this person ever again and that I will just learn how to do things myself.”

Aside from driving Ozge to become her own computer expert, the tech also installed a game on the device. That game, ironically, became her gateway to coding.

The first game Ozge got into was Prince of Persia. She watched her brother play it first and became enamored with the problem-solving challenges it posed. As she began to play, she learned that there was a way to make the game easier to play: coding.

“I downloaded a crack for it [Prince of Persia], which is a small program that allowed you to progress through the game without dying so I wouldn’t get stuck. The crack didn’t work, so after a while I learned that I could open up the code itself and change lines then compile it again with some software, which at that time I was just following online direction and had no idea [what] anything was. I ended up with an executable that worked, and this was the first thing I did [in coding], and it was to cheat in a video game.” 

This small, innocent bit of video game cheating would prepare Ozge for the collision of coding and biology. The collision would occur in her master’s courses in Applied Biotechnology at Uppsala University in Sweden.

Ozge discovered coding in biology through her evolutionary genetics classes. In the evolutionary field of biotechnology, it’s common to use small coding scripts to run theoretical simulations and analyze the results.

Ozge had no formal training in coding, nor did she have any real grasp that she had been coding to cheat in her games. But once she discovered R – a programming language for statistical computing and graphics – and learned how to use it through a course, she found that she enjoyed developing scripts for theoretical biological analysis.

While Ozge found coding and theoretical analysis to be fascinating, most of her colleagues at Uppsala University didn’t. Ozge supposes that her affinity for coding lies in her video gaming background.

“Sometimes when you play video games you want to modify certain things in the game, and you look up online to modify it,” she says. “It might not be apparent at the time but that’s actually writing code. You are writing a simple dictionary to add another item to the game. And that’s coding. I think having that background helped a bit for me compared to my colleagues.”

After obtaining her master’s, Ozge went on to Stockholm to pursue her PhD in Computational and Theoretical Science at the KTH Royal Institute of Technology. Here, she was able to do what she loved: write code and run simulations in a lab.

At first, Ozge thought she wanted to stay in academics and become a professor. But, after completing her PhD studies and moving to the United States for postdoctoral research at the University of Maryland, she discovered that not having strong financial support, a low-paying academic career where she also had to battle against favouritism and discrimination was too challenging to continue.

“In academia, you have to keep publishing, you need to keep showing results, you need to have scholarships to show universities that you are a good candidate. I was working in a lab where I was failing to achieve these. Whatever I had achieved wasn’t considered good enough. In science, sometimes you get answers, sometimes you get more questions. Working with professors who understand that and don’t demand inventing results is the key to overcoming the publishing bottleneck. I didn’t have that support, so I decided to look into industry work.”

Industry work turned out to be a perfect fit for Ozge’s aspirations. It allowed her to perform the work she loved while still doing research and being able to collaborate with and learn from experts in her field.

The biotechnology startup that Ozge works for now, ProteinQure, reached out to her and offered her a job as a computational biologist when she posted her profile in a Slack channel. “Their values in calculations in this biology field,” Ozge says, “its importance in keeping contact with the wet lab team, and validating results aligned with mine, so I decided to join their team.”

Once she started working for ProteinQure, she had to teach herself how to design proteins. From there, she was able to run molecular simulations, a process with which she was already familiar from her university studies.

Ozge’s main job at ProteinQure is to look at proteins and run simulations to solve biological problems. One such problem, for example, could be that a certain pill needs to be digested at a certain point in the digestive process.

Ozge explains this theoretical problem: “When you eat a meal, you digest it in your stomach but when you swallow a pill, you don’t want it to be digested right away. You want it to reach its destination. So, for example, we want to figure out once the pill is swallowed how fast it will be digested, and to find a good balance between something that will be degraded before it is taken out of the body.”

For Ozge, this is exciting work. Her path to what has now become her passion was unconventional. From hating computers to running theoretical biological simulations and writing programming scripts, she’s been on a long journey. As such, she has advice for anyone who wants to jump into coding.

“The most precious skill you can have is to be able to teach yourself. You can take as many courses and you can ask as many questions as you want, but if you can’t solve your own problems by keeping yourself interested and engaged in its progress, it will be challenging. But once you learn the skill to teach yourself it will get easy.”

As for students who are considering a career in computational biotechnology, Ozge believes you can start from either end: computer science or biology.

“I know some people who studied computer science then got into biology in their masters and PhD studies,” she says. “I did the opposite. I did biology and chemistry before teaching myself coding and got really into it.”

We’ll end this conversation with Ozge Yoluk with a sentiment that, as computer science lovers, we wholeheartedly agree with and would tell anyone who chooses computer science as a career path.

“There isn’t anything in a computer that you can’t bring back as long as there’s regular backup. This is one field you don’t need to be afraid of learning from trial and error.”

Writer: Elaine Tviet
Photos: Choi David
Stylist: Caitlin Power

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