May 9, 2023

Introducing the Class of '23 Apprentices

May 9, 2023

Introducing the Class of '23 Apprentices

This year our apprentice cohort was the largest it’s ever been! Seven fresh college graduates joined the team last summer and made significant contributions across synthetic biology, high throughput chemistry, data science, and software, each under the guidance of their own scientist mentor. In addition to watching them mature scientifically during their apprenticeship, it has also been a pleasure to see them shape our company’s culture. Hear about their thoughts on the experience below!

What has been your favorite part of working at Octant thus far?

Emma: I’m constantly amazed at how much support Octant provides for career development, particularly for the OAs. A few months into our apprenticeship, the OAs got to take on and lead our own project together. We’re building a multiplexed assay to screen potential drugs for side-effects by seeing how they interact with many GPCRs commonly hit off-target by approved drugs. In the process, I learned new lab techniques (tissue culture, high-throughput molecular cloning, de-multiplexing data) and gained valuable practice in ideation and troubleshooting.

Emma and Josh whispering words of encouragement to their HEK cells

Nabil: I think it has to be how much autonomy you get as an OA. I get to work on things that span the gamut of what a data scientist does, which has been an extremely valuable experience. I've gotten to explore my interests (and figure out things I'm not so fond of) all with the support of fellow Octonauts. You want to work on something new? Bring it up with your mentor and together you can figure out how to put it into action. In undergrad, I primarily stuck to the bioinformatics side of things, but coming to Octant I've gotten the chance to work with the chemists and discovered a potential career path I hadn’t thought of before. Oh and the food's not so bad either! :)

Yannah: Working with intentional and passionate people has been rewarding and motivating. We have a collaborative environment where we encourage each other to do things like ask questions throughout presentations or go to a white board to think through a problem. Octonauts generously share their time and expertise to support each other and advance our programs, as well as when it comes to non-work related interests and pursuits. I feel grateful to work in a place where I learn the significance of a statistical analysis for a deep mutational scanning experiment on the same day I enjoy sailing in the bay, both with fellow Octonauts!

What are you most proud of accomplishing during your apprenticeship? 

Josh: Four months into my time here I became the screening lead for one of our drug programs. Being the screening lead means I worked with teams across the company to successfully screen over 100K compounds and deliver a final data package of hits! I worked with the synbio team who developed the assay to onboard and scale up the assay, the automation team to run the screen using our automated platform, and the compute team to analyze the data. This gave me the opportunity to work with lots of different people while also seeing the full stack of the company– from the initial assay development to screening the hopeful drugs from high throughput chemistry.

Yannah: Octant partners with the local YMCA Y-Scholars Program to support high school students by providing STEM related outreach and mentorship. Since October 2022, we’ve supported students in applying to university and through tutoring for a variety of subjects. Octonauts have presented to Y-Scholars about biotechnology and Octant’s science and careers in academia and industry, and participated in a college and women in STEM panel we hosted at the YMCA Teen Center in Berkeley. We then launched a mentorship program and currently have 5 scholar - Octonaut pairs that meet regularly to explore stem related interests. In April we hosted our mentees at Octant for a full day of touring the lab, learning about Octant technologies, and chatting with our scientists! This initiative (Y-GEMS) at Octant was conceived by a few Octonauts including myself from a shared interest to share opportunities in STEM to first gen and low-income students in our area. It’s been rewarding to build Y-GEMS with my coworkers and know that it provides positive opportunities and experiences for students. People across teams have enthusiastically shared their time to make it a success– a testament to our culture of building Octonauts and engaging with the broader community. I’m thankful and proud to impact students through Y-GEMS with them!

Y-scholar mentees joined us at Octant and watched demos in the lab during shadow day!

Saagar: I’m most proud of my work on one of our rare genetic disease programs, where I participate in cell engineering, assay development, and screening. Earlier in my apprenticeship I developed several assays to measure abundance and/or target activity and now we use these assays to identify potential therapeutic compounds! It’s really fulfilling to see this project start from just an idea and flourish into a fully-fledged drug program that we hope will help patients one day.

Saagar and his scientist mentor Carter
What was the most challenging part of the apprenticeship program?
Eden cloning a few million plasmids for a deep mutational scanning (DMS) library like it's no big deal

Eden: The first couple of months doing full-time research at a fast paced company like Octant definitely felt a little overwhelming at times. There were many new processes, concepts, skills, and lingo to learn, so it took some time to get oriented. Learning to live with this feeling and give myself grace while striving to understand everything that I could was challenging at first, but it was a really great learning experience, and one of the many perks of the apprenticeship program is that the other apprentices are in the same boat. Pushing through this period challenged me to become more adaptable and to get more comfortable learning on my feet, and in the end made me a better scientist!

Edward: For me, learning how to manage my time was particularly challenging, since there’s so much to do at Octant. I had a constant stream of interesting ideas and project deliverables that I could work on at any given time, but I had to learn how to prioritize them otherwise I’d be in the lab 24/7! Even with diligent prioritization, sometimes the lab just throws curveballs. For example, if an important compound starts precipitating out of solution or if an instrument starts misbehaving, then the experiments take much longer to set up, results get delayed, and I have to become more resourceful. Working through all these challenges has taught me how to adapt in an ever-changing environment and given me a greater appreciation for all the work that goes into science.

What was the most surprising aspect of your experience here?

Nabil: The most surprising part of my experience here was the dedication to learning that all Octonauts value. Coming to Octant there were many things that were super new to me, from big topics such as analyzing multiplexed assay data all the way to tiny things like using the espresso machine. From the first day, everyone welcomed my questions and the OA project was a perfect example of this. We were able to use company time and resources to complete a project of our choosing, all with the understanding that it might not succeed. It's a nice surprise that people here are so generous to help others learn, even when they have their own lengthy to-do lists!

Edward: The most surprising thing for me was the amount of trust that people put in the OAs to get things done. Even as a fresh graduate with little prior work or chemistry experience, within a few months of joining, I found myself doing high throughput chemistry for multiple drug programs. I was given leeway to do everything from experimental design to execution to data analysis, which has been a valuable learning experience for me.

Do you have a favorite memory from your time at Octant?
Celebrating a year of hard work with a night of cruising around the SF Bay on the Hornblower!

Josh: The biweekly board game club is always a blast. Some weeks have the entire table cracking up over a hot take or ridiculous play, while other weeks will see a clever strategy play out after hours of scheming.

Saagar: I really enjoyed the holiday party, which was on a boat! We played a murder mystery game, ate delicious food, and tore up the dance floor.

What advice would you give the next class of apprentices?  

Emma: Octant is full of incredibly talented people; take advantage of that! It’s easy to feel intimidated by the number of experienced people around you when you first join, but everyone here is more than happy to share their experiences. You just need to ask. The more people you talk to and questions you ask, the more you will get out of your OA experience.

Eden: Don’t be afraid to try something new (and maybe even fail) if it means you learn something along the way and improve for the next time around. While it can be scary at first, we’re given a lot of agency at Octant to try new things and learn independently, so take advantage of this freedom to learn new techniques/processes and to make a meaningful impact.

What’s next for you? 

Eden: I’ll be staying at Octant for another year and continuing to work on deep mutational scanning for drug discovery!

Edward: I’ll be staying for another year working on the HT Chem team!

Emma: I’m headed to San Diego to start my PhD in the UCSD Biomedical Sciences program!

Josh: I’ll be starting my PhD with the Harvard Biology and Biological Sciences program supported by the NSF!

Nabil: I'll be staying for another year doing all things data science!

Saagar: I’ll be heading to New York City to pursue an MD degree at Columbia University!

Yannah: I’ll be continuing on at Octant, supporting the compute team and helping to keep the ball rolling on our Y-GEMS initiative!

Many congrats to the class of 2023 apprentices!

Eden Mahdavi

Octant Apprentice

Edward Lee

Octant Apprentice

Emma Rooholfada

Octant Apprentice

Joshua Park

Octant Apprentice

Nabil Mohammed

Octant Apprentice

Saagar Jain

Octant Apprentice

Yannah Melle

Octant Apprentice
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