17 Reasons to Work at the CCDL

Also Authored by: Ariel Rodriguez Romero, Candace Savonen, Jaclyn Taroni, Kurt wheeler

 

tl;dr The Childhood Cancer Data Lab (CCDL), an initiative of Alex's Lemonade Stand Foundation develops tools, trainings, and methods to empower childhood cancer researchers. The work at the CCDL is focused and impactful. There are multiple opportunities and challenges for you to apply and grow your skills as a scientist or as an engineer. It's not all work at the CCDL, we are engaged in the local tech and science community, as well as have some great perks. Also, we're hiring!

 

Started in August 2017, the Childhood Cancer Data Lab (CCDL)  is an initiative of Alex's Lemonade Stand Foundation, a national childhood cancer foundation dedicated to raising funds for research into new treatments and cures for all children battling cancer.

We are a team of scientists, engineers, and designers developing products, services, and methods to empower the childhood cancer research community. We engineer systems using user-centered design approaches to ensure that computational methods reach a broader audience of researchers, amplifying the utility and impact of these approaches.

Focused and Impactful Work

The team is diverse with people from different backgrounds, and we all share one thing: we’re very proud of the work we do to help fight childhood cancer. Whether it’s adding a new feature or developing a training module, our focus is on the researchers and what we can do to help them be more effective in discovering cures for childhood cancer. In a few years, we’ll be able to look back and see the profound impact we had.  

In less than two years, we’ve developed and published peer-reviewed workflows to study rare diseases; built refine.bio, which has processed more than half a million  samples and delivered 70 datasets to researchers; and designed a data science training program for childhood cancer researchers from the ground up and it’s already impacting researchers’ work.

 

Life as a Scientist at the CCDL

Small team, broad strokes

As scientists at the CCDL, there is perhaps nothing we take more seriously than our science. (Our coffee is a distant second.) Our job is to make it easier to find cures for childhood cancer. Accelerating the pace of science and making it more robust is a huge part of that effort and we are in a unique position to do so as a lab that is not affiliated with an individual academic institution. We believe if childhood cancer researchers are empowered to do their best work, their discoveries are more likely to effect change for children with cancer.

Easily mineable tumor data will be important for the future of precision medicine, but the scope of our work is broader than childhood cancer data alone. There are pediatric cancers that likely can not be matched to current treatments. That means translational work in model systems and drawing from our understanding of different biological contexts like development will be essential to the fight. As a result, we get to meet and work with folks who approach scientific questions in many different ways and whose enthusiasm and passion for their research is contagious. This comprehensive view is part of what makes working at the CCDL challenging, exciting, and certainly never boring.

We performed some mild data collection at AACR 2019.

 
 

The science team has a hand in nearly all of the CCDL offerings, whether it is figuring out how to process data for our software products (refine.bio), designing and executing training workshops (see our training modules on GitHub), or bringing new approaches to the field of childhood cancer research (Taroni et al. Cell Systems. 2019.). Every sprint, there is something different to work on, which not only helps us build our skills (in a public-facing way—did we mention our GitHub?) but also keeps things interesting. In addition, the unique ecosystem of coworkers here with different expertise means we’ve all grown and improved in ways both expected and unexpected since starting our positions. We feel like it’s okay to admit we don’t know something.

Best of both worlds

If you’ve made it this far, you might be wondering how this compares to being a scientist in an academic setting. (People ask us this a lot 😁) Good news, we maintain much of the intellectual freedom and curiosity that is part of an academic environment! We still write a lot: check out this pathway analysis example. We have time, space, and support to emphasize reproducible research practices and analytical code quality. (We don’t think this makes us distinct from academia, but we thought you should know 😀) We also get to be part of a team in ways that trainees don’t always get to pursue. Yes, it’s true that we’re not competing for grant money or trying to get tenure, but that’s not the only reason you’d want to work here!

 

Life as an Engineer at the CCDL

As a software engineer, working at the CCDL provides big challenges to tackle. There’s a lot of data to download, a lot of different processing pipelines to support, a lot of weird edge cases that come from dealing with messy biological data. Meanwhile we strive to uphold best engineering practices, keep our codebase maintainable, and deliver a delightful experience to our users. As a small engineering team with big challenges, we get to wear a lot of hats and work on a lot of different pieces of the system. This also gives each team member a lot of chances to contribute to the architecture of the system or drive changes in our processes. It’s a lot like the good parts of working at a startup, and there’s a lot less worrying about runway.

Because we run everything in AWS, engineers in the CCDL can have a lot of power at their fingertips. While it is challenging to maintain all of the infrastructure we have with such a small team, it also means that we utilize a lot of computing power compared to the size of our team.

 
I find it really fun to think about the amount of data and the power of our cluster as I develop, maintain, and operate our distributed system.
— Kurt Wheeler
 

It’s all open source

Another big benefit to working at the CCDL is that all of the code you write is open source. Sometimes random researchers or developers will show up on a Github issue and contribute a comment or two to the discussion. Sometimes we get to contribute fixes or improvements to various upstream projects. Want to see for yourself? Take a look at our GitHub account.

It's also really beneficial to be guaranteed access to your code forever. Leaving a job where the code is proprietary also means leaving behind the solutions you've created while working there. There's few things more frustrating than running into a problem you've solved before, being unable to access the solution you developed, and then having to figure it out again. On the contrary, since all of the CCDL's code is open source, you'll never lose access to your previous work. It's also great from a career standpoint: future employers can look at the actual work you've done in the past.

 
My favorite unsolicited message from a recruiter on LinkedIn of all time: ‘I took some time to look into some of the projects posted on your Github and I was super impressed by some of the coding in Terraform projects you’ve taken on.’
— Kurt Wheeler
 

🔥 Biology is lit 🔥

There are very few simple problems when working here. As an engineer with little biology background, there are a lot of unknowns, but we learn new details every day and get to see how the research for a cure for cancer is done from the inside. The amount of biological knowledge we pick up really sneaks up on us. We often find ourselves understanding a technical description of a biological process that a year or two ago would have just been a stream of jargon.

 

It’s not all work at the CCDL

 
IMG_0713.JPG
 

At CCDL, all the basics are covered. We have great health care benefits, vacations, competitive salary, and the list goes on. Did we mention we are located in Center City, right in the middle of downtown Philadelphia? With huge windows that face Walnut Street, it’s inspiring to sit just above the city and think. We even get to hear some of the music people play on the corner, now and again.

The CCDL may be a data lab, but its biggest asset are the people behind the data. Every year the CCDL makes sure that each of its team members attends to at least one conference for the sole purpose of continuing to build their expertise (this is actually one of our annual goals, and our success is judged, in part, on whether or not it happens).

Because collaboration in the workplace is key, you’ll earn virtual tacos 🌮 on Slack every time you help another teammate. Once you reach a specified number, the lab pays for a team lunch at a place of your choice. There are a lot of eateries near the office, some of our team’s favorites are Amma’s, Jeans, Grocery, Midtown III, Real Food, oh and of course the best halal food in center city. Spoiler, it’s only $5.

On top of that, we have a family-friendly environment. Our director Casey Greene is the proud dad of @NotoriousAda, a budding star on Twitter! She comes to visit sometimes too. ❤️

 
 

Community Engagement

From talking at local events to hosting meetups in our space, members of the CCDL engage regularly with the local tech and science community.

Here’s our data scientist, Dr. Jaclyn Taroni, talking about the CCDL and our offerings at a R-Ladies Philly and DataPhilly event. (You can read more about it on Technical.ly Philly!)

 
 

We’re happy to be hosting the May 2019 R-Ladies Philly event!

Kurt Wheeler, our software engineer recently spoke about Apsera at the Philly DevOps meetup.

 
 

The CCDL's unique position gives us an insight not only to researchers and their processes but also opportunities to get involved in the fundraising side of things as well.  

The Foundation organizes several events each year, and we get to help make these events a success.

We’ve been part of Alex’s Original Lemonade Stand.

 
 

We’ve sold raffle tickets and merchandise at the Lemon Ball.

 
 

Whether your focus is on science or engineering, there is always an exciting challenge to work on or something new to learn. At the CCDL, you can be part of a team striving to setup childhood cancer researchers to succeed in making impactful discoveries for children battling cancer.

BTW we’re hiring!

 
 
Deepa Prasad