This is how Helix has made me a better engineer
Before joining Helix, all I knew about DNA was that it could be used to find biological parents if a child is abducted. After joining, it took me no time to realize that our DNA touches virtually every part of our lives. Being a computer science engineer, I’d never gone very deep into this form of science. Coming from a background of 0s and 1s, I was worried a bit about how I’d cope with the world of As, Cs, Ts, and Gs.
Fortunately, since the day I joined Helix, I’ve had many opportunities to know more about this wonderful part of science. In no particular order, here are a few of my favorites.
Learning genetics from a comic book
It’s very unique for a new hire to get a comic book as a goodie on their desk on day one, but at Helix, it makes a lot of sense. Comic books can be great for explaining things in much simpler ways for all ages. “The Cartoon Guide To Genetics” by Larry Gonick and Mark Wheelis is filled with stuff explaining DNA and its origins in a simple way that even children can understand. It provides an overview of genetics across various species and really embodies the old adage, “A picture is worth a thousand words.” Topics across the book’s comic strips include the contents of cells, how proteins are made, gene mutation, and DNA replication.
A key ingredient to this book’s success is that it gets to the point without any diversions, but in a way that makes the book more engaging. I completely agree with the author’s note that “With power comes the responsibility of choosing wisely. In a sense, we have come full circle, to a time when everyone must be a biologist, and the world is a classroom.” Maybe books, like this one, should be how schools teach science!
Not everyone at Helix can closely follow what is happening across the globe related to genome research every day. That’s why we have a weekly Science Hour, an informative, engaging gathering between Helix scientists and other staff to get up to speed and get any questions that you might have answered. The cool facts and interesting stories shared over these sessions never fail to teach me something new—for instance, I was thrilled to learn that we have six feet of DNA coiled up into each of our cells!
An interaction with random coworkers, each from backgrounds that are completely different than yours, not only breaks up the routine but also opens up your network across the company. The “donut meeting” is a biweekly random pair-up of two employees across all the departments in the company for a 30-minute meeting.
The pair-up is done through a bot in Slack, and the algorithm of the bot chooses pairings based on communication level between the two employees. The less likely two employees are to interact in the course of their everyday jobs, the more likely they are to be paired. For example, an employee from marketing is less likely to normally work with an engineer. Every two weeks, each employee is paired up with another employee. It provides opportunity to stretch beyond your comfort zone, interact with new people, and learn about functions that you wouldn’t have an opportunity to otherwise. It’s interesting to know how people from human resources, legal, bioinformatics, marketing, policy, and other departments are contributing to the same company goals in their day-to-day functions. The cross-departmental collaboration fostered by donut meetings is especially helpful during big product releases.
DNA can be extracted from a strawberry at home by just using dish detergent, salt, and rubbing alcohol—but sequencing thousands of DNA samples from humans needs advanced laboratory equipment. Helix has a world-class CLIA/CAP lab in San Diego where this advanced sequencing takes place. Watching the lab at work is nothing short of mesmerizing and awe-inspiring, and I always encourage Helix employees to check it out if they have the opportunity to do so. The journey of a DNA sample across various stages in the lab helps visitors understand what it takes to convert a small saliva sample into a massive stream of bytes.
The Helix blog is a fountain of information on genetics—not just for Helix employees, but for everyone over the internet. Our blog posts discuss our engineering practices, feature interviews, explain research breakthroughs, and help our customers understand each product offered in the Helix Store. The blog is not only educational but also helps empower readers to understand how they can improve their lives through DNA.
A structured education with live discussions is often more effective than watching pre-recorded videos online or reading articles, and that’s where Helix University (for simplicity, we say Helix U) comes in. Helix U is a weekly classroom-style training session comprising a total of 10 classes. The primary goal of Helix U is to get every employee in the organization—regardless of role and educational background—on the same page regarding the science, technology, business model, and processes that make Helix unique. Each class consists of a 45-minute presentation followed by 15 minutes of Q&A. The classes are on different subjects covering Helix history, Genetics 101, SNP (Single Nucleotide Polymorphism) Testing, our approach to working with partners, a look into our product development, bioethics, regulatory body processes, marketing, and our internal processes and controls. The presentations are designed to be understandable to everyone in the organization, and they’re very effective at helping us understand Helix holistically.
Needless to say, all of these resources have helped grow my understanding of DNA substantially in a relatively short period of time. One of our core values here at Helix is called “bridging the gap”—reaching out to one another to help advance our platform and tell our story. This value really comes through in how seriously we take education, and it’s made me a better engineer.