Become a PowerToFly VIP
For less than one coffee a week, receive exclusive content, access to live chats with female thought leaders, and more when you sign up to become a VIP!

When Science & Tech Meet: A Conversation with Helix's Rani Powers

PowerToFly was thrilled to partner with Helix for a recent, sold out evening for San Francisco-based women in tech. (Check out photos from that event HERE).

One of our panelists at that event was Rani Powers, a computational biologist at personal genetics company Helix. We sat down with Rani to discuss her work at Helix, how continued education has shaped her views, her patent and about how her role lives at the intersection of tech and science.

Helix is hiring! Follow Helix on PowerToFly to learn more about their open roles.

Many folks may be unfamiliar with the term Computational Biologist. Can you tell us a little more about what this role entails and specifically what role you play at Helix?

Helix offers state-of-the-art DNA sequencing and an app store full of DNA-powered products that let you "unlock" a wide variety of insights based on your genetics. At Helix, my role provides a primary interface between our science, engineering, product and business teams. As a computational biologist and product manager, I get to combine my experience and passion for genetics and software to envision, design, and build consumer genetics products that empower anyone to understand, and interact with, their DNA. On a day to day basis, this means that I help direct, and bridge the gap between, a team of scientists, engineers and designers. Ultimately, our team helps Helix and Helix's partners (companies like National Geographic and LoseIt!) take complex data inputs – the raw A's, C's, T's and G's in DNA – and transform it into information that a person can use to improve their health or learn about their ancestry.

How did you first become interested in science and tech?

Like many scientists, I fell in love with science at a young age and started keeping "lab notebooks" describing observations I made about nature in elementary school. A few years later, my parents bought our first computer and I moved to designing digital notebooks and pamphlets, which then led to designing websites, video games, and other small projects. In high school, I became interested in the field of biomedical engineering after a high school teacher suggested it as a way to combine my interests in technology, science, and math. (A year later, I applied to the Biomedical Engineering program at the University of Southern California). Ultimately, I chose to pursue a degree in molecular biology and continued to do freelance programming and design projects to earn an income on the side. It wasn't until a few years after graduating that I would realize how valuable that experience would be!

Your diverse expertise includes molecular, machine learning, genomics, and software development. Can you briefly explain how these various skills are interrelated? Do you need to change your thought process or methodology when moving from one to another?

I should begin this answer by saying that I didn't start my career knowing that the fields I was passionate about would combine into an interdisciplinary opportunity. With science and technology in particular, I've always found myself drawn to exploring the outer edges of our knowledge. I remember spending countless hours on the internet reading about how to write a program that would create a webpage "I Spy" game for my younger sister. I can also remember the exact day in a genetics class in college when something clicked: DNA is, quite remarkably, a program for a human. Because of this, genomics and programming are easier to relate conceptually than people may initially realize. Unlike programming though, a person's genomics data doesn't come with a README. Decades of research have offered clues into how changes to a person's genetic code can lead to them having brown eyes or developing Huntington's disease. Software applications extract this information from the millions of letters making up a DNA sequence. For other traits and diseases, the connection to genetics is less straightforward and this is where machine learning is beginning to shine. With machine learning, we can give a computer millions of inputs and ask it to "learn" how to predict a person's risk for heart attack. So for me, having "diverse expertise" is actually less about context switching and more about sliding up and down a mental spectrum blending genomics, software and machine learning. The goal is always the same: make someone's life better.

You are a PhD Candidate (or pardon me if you've already received your PhD). How has you continued education shaped your view of science and tech?

Yes, I am a PhD Candidate at the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus in the Computational Bioscience program. I will defend my dissertation research in Spring 2019 to receive my PhD! My personal definition of a successful in a graduate career is building advanced expertise in a particular subject, but even more importantly, using that expertise to bridge what we may now think of as separate fields. (This perspective was heavily influenced by Sean Eddy's Antedisciplinary Science and other works I discovered in high school). The crucial takeaway from academia that shapes my view of science and tech is that research is always moving forward. The incredible amount of time and effort that field- and industry-leaders invest to keep up isn't for impressing their colleagues at a dinner party. If you choose to remain in the comfort zone, you are choosing to ignore the discovery that will change someone's life. The strongest science and tech companies this decade will use innovation as fuel – their products will be designed to incorporate new ideas without breaking stride.

For people who aren't able to pursue formal higher education, what resources would you suggest they explore in order to stay current on the ever evolving world of tech? Perhaps there is a website, podcast, book or another outlet that you'd recommend.

We live in an incredible time for learning! There is a staggering number of resources available for those wanting to supplement their formal education, or those unable to pursue it in the first place. As a self-taught programmer, I relied almost completely on library books and free online resources, and there were (and still are!) times when I felt behind the curve. For people who learn best in a more structured manner, I like to recommend online classes at websites like Coursera and edX. Many of the lessons can be viewed for free. If someone is looking to stay current by networking in an active community, I love to recommend Meetups. Some of my other favorite resources are Hacker News and the Y Combinator podcast, Wired, and the Masters of Scale podcast. To get real-time notifications on science topics I'm interested in, I like to use Google Alerts and email notifications from bioRxiv and PubMed.

You have experience serving as a mentor. What advice would you give to fellow women in tech who are seeking a mentor and what do you think are the keys to a strong mentor-mentee relationship.

I am incredibly grateful to the mentors that I've developed relationships with over the years. Their guidance and wisdom has undoubtedly shaped the way I approach problems, interact with others, and think about goals. I believe these relationships are especially important for women in technology. Some advice based on my personal experiences: it's not necessarily important to find a mentor in your exact field. Learning from experts in your own domain has some obvious advantages, but I found that it ended up being more important to me to just find a mentor that I connected with personally. As a result, the mentors I have now happen to work in all sorts of fields! This offers a great opportunity for learning skills that transcend any one job title. Another key to strong mentor-mentee relationship is understanding that it's a two-way street. I make it a point to ask my mentors about what's most exciting to them that week, or what obstacles they're finding challenging and how they're thinking of overcoming them. Finally, my advice is to always be genuine! Take the time to learn about people's interests and get to know them, and you'll find that there are many incredible women in tech looking for others to mentor.

You have a patent! What can you tell us about it?

I'm really proud and excited about that patent! The full document is available here. The quick summary is that we've patented the ability to apply certain types of machine learning to genetics data. Specifically, we describe how a system (e.g. software program) retrieves genetic data for a user and inputs that genetic information into one or more machine learning algorithms to predict a trait or characteristic about that user. Several examples of this can be seen in DNAPassport, an app that we built at HumanCode before it was acquired by Helix. DNAPassport uses genetic data from a user sequenced on the Helix sequencing platform as input to machine learning models trained to predict ancestry or hair color. In addition to this patent, which has officially been issued, I have 11 additional patent applications currently under review. The process of getting a patent approved and issued often takes around 1-2 years.


Rani can be found on Twitter @RaniPowers.
Related Articles Around the Web

PowerToFly Holiday Gift Guide: Our Must-Have Work-From-Home Items

What To Buy For Your Favorite Remote Worker (Or Yourself!)

My friends were pretty jealous when I told them I'd found a remote job. They pictured me choosing my hours, working from the comfort of my bed, and rocking pajamas 24/7. All great things... in moderation.

Just a little over a month into my role at PowerToFly, I've already experienced many of the pros and cons of working from home. I know I'm not alone in this - the remote workforce is only growing (9 million people in the U.S. alone worked from home at least half of the time in 2017).

The beauty of remote work is that it lets you decide what kind of environment you'll be most productive in… but the downside is that if you don't build that environment for yourself, you might find you've got a lot of back pain (turns out, working from bed isn't so comfortable after all) and not much energy.

So in the spirit of the holidays, I asked my more experienced remote coworkers to share their must-have work-from-home items - the little things that keep them sane and smiling during their daily grind.

Whether you already work from home, are looking to do so in the future, or are shopping for someone who does (cough cough, Mom), this holiday gift guide is for you.

1. Blue light glasses to protect your eyes from long hours looking at the computer (and to keep you looking sharp at the same time).

Get them from Amazon for $21.99

Our Senior Marketing & Community Manager Lauren says: "I've never worn glasses EVER, but when I started working remotely my eyes got so tired. I've seen a huge difference after I started wearing blue light glasses, and no headaches!"

2. A bullet journal to help you stay on top of your goals. So you know you're being productive even when your boss can't literally pat you on the back.

Get it on Amazon for $9.06

Our Customer Success Associate Brinley says: "I use it for everything – hand-drawn calendar, to-do lists, and even personal stuff like budget planning and weekly goals."

3. A laptop tray so you can be productive from wherever you're most comfortable. (You haven't really worked from home until you've worked from your bed.)

Get it from Barnes & Noble for $39.95

Our Recruiting Manager Amy says: "I love my laptop tray!!! you can fit your planner, your laptop and most importantly, your coffee."

4. A productivity planner to help you become more intrinsically motivated. (Ideal for those lacking the artistic talents required for bullet journaling.)

Get it on Intelligent Change for $24.95

Our President and Cofounder Katharine says: "It helps me manage and protect my time so that when I have creative work that requires a lot of focus, I can break it down into short, intense chunks and be more efficient."

5. A stylish stone diffuser that brings your favorite scent to wherever you're working.

Get it from Vitruvi for $119

Our Senior Account Executive Anastasia says: "Right now I'm working in a room that smells like a forest after a light rain." I've definitely never heard anyone say that about their cubicle.

6. A gym/workout class membership to keep you active (and sane) during the week - because exercise makes you happy and being happy makes you more productive! And a little bit of human interaction doesn't hurt, either.

Our Mid-Market Account Executive Deveshe says: "It's important for me to get out, shake a leg and jump around. Otherwise I wouldn't step out through the week."

7. A Peloton stationary bike so you can get in a great workout even when it's too cold to leave the house. (And once you invest this much money, you know damn well you'll actually use it, or lose ten pounds from gnawing guilt alone. Win-win.)

Get it from Peloton for $2,245

Our Operations Manager Gina says: "It allows me to stay fit no matter how busy I am…I can exercise during my lunch hour or in between meetings if need be."

8. A backpack with a dedicated fleece-lined laptop compartment to keep all of your equipment protected and organized, whether you're traveling across the world or walking across the street to your favorite cafe.

Get this one from North Face for $73.99

Our Director of Customer Success Cristina says: "Love it for packing my laptop and tech items as it has tons of pockets Including fleece lined ones for tech."

9. Bluetooth headphones with immersive sound so you'll never miss a word your boss says.

Get these Bose SoundLink On-Ear Bluetooth Headphones with Microphone on Amazon for $159

Our Director of Business Development Amanda says: "I can get up and move around the house while I'm on calls."

10. A battery case for your phone so you can work wherever you want, without running out of juice.

Get it on Amazon for $108.99

Our Production Lead Rob says: "When traveling, I have to have my iPhone charging case."

11. A speaker to listen to your favorite music/podcasts when the sound of silence is just too much.

Get the Sonos Play:1 from Google Express for 149.99

Our Production Lead Rob says: "Working from home can get lonely sometimes so I love to play WNYC or podcasts when I feel like I need some company. I'm also a big vinyl collector and I have a turntable that can play wirelessly to a Sonos so even though my record player is in my living room, I can listen to it in my office."

12. An adjustable laptop stand that your wrists and your wallet (it's definitely cheaper than carpel tunnel surgery in the U.S.) will thank you for. Plus, this one doubles as a standing desk.

Get it on Amazon for $59.99

Our Customer Success Manager Lola says: "I'm using a box right now, but you definitely need something to elevate your computer."

13. A mate gourd and yerba mate, a.k.a the perfect workmates. Get the jolt you need without the jitters and gain your South American friends' approval at the same time.

Get the gourd and bombilla (straw) on Amazon for $23.99 And the Yerba for $13.95 (or make a trip to Argentina and buy it for $2)

Our DevOps Lead Emiliano says: "Very Argentinean, but definitely something that cannot be missing from my desk."

14. A foot massager to reward yourself for a job well done. Who says your home office can't double as a home spa? Work hard, relax hard.

Buy it on Amazon for $59.98

Our Product Designer Jedidah says: "Sitting in one spot can get strenuous on muscles in my leg, but with my foot massager I get to improve blood flow in that area, and enjoy a great foot massage which eases stress."


My coworker Anastasia said it best:

I love that working from home you get to take charge of your surroundings - I'm never cold like I am in offices (the male vs. female divide there ha). And I like me some good ambiance which is obviously subjective too so I appreciate being able to control it alllll myself.

So take charge of your surroundings and make 2019 your most productive - and comfortable - year yet!



Virtual talks for women by women to give you the edge you need to elevate your career. Includes discounts to our bootcamp partners, invites to events and more.


Salary Negotiation Tips For Women: 10 Expert Tactics

Why Asking Matters and How To Do It The Right Way

"How much do you want?" can feel like a trick question when you're negotiating salary.

The first time I was asked this question, I had no idea what to say. I just knew that what I'd been offered wasn't enough. Having relocated from the U.S. to Argentina just a month prior, I was still learning the market and was worried about having my offer rescinded if I asked for too much. Knowledge is power in a negotiation, and in my ignorance of local norms and rates, I found myself feeling powerless and frustrated.

The hiring manager seized on my silence and asked me another question: "What's the minimum you'd accept?" Not knowing how to stall for more time, I blurted out my actual minimum. He flashed a toothy grin and said, "Done." I knew then and there that I'd gone way too low - his smile said it all.

I broke two cardinal rules of negotiation that day:

READ MORE Show less
Better Companies

A Look at Our Evening with Four Fast-Growing San Francisco Startups

On November 15th, PowerToFly returned to ConnectionsSF in downtown San Francisco for our second event.

For this evening of networking, product demos and panel discussion, we gathered women tech leaders from four fast-growing startups to tell us more about their latest innovations and to dive a bit deeper into their own career journeys. Our speakers for the evening included Dun Wang, VP of Product and Growth at Calm; Lisa Retief, Director of Engineering at Cloudflare; Jessica Venticinque, Engineer at Forward and Laura Dechant, Head of Customer Success & Ops at Philo.

READ MORE Show less
In Person Events

A Look at Our Recent Networking Event in Seattle

PowerToFly was so happy to be back in Seattle for another amazing evening of women in tech on December 5th. Sponsored by MAKERS Workspaces and held at their spacious, wood-accent venue in the Pikes Place Market neighborhood, the event featured three fast-growing Seattle startups: Convoy, who is changing the way companies think about trucking; Smartsheet, a cloud-based platform that makes it easier for teams to share and collaborate; and Stripe, who help power millions of businesses in 100+ countries and across nearly every industry by providing a set of tools for building and running an internet business.

READ MORE Show less

A Look at Our Event with Pluralsight

One of PowerToFly's missions is to provide educational outlets for women in tech, business and beyond. We strive to do this through our events, mentoring programs and through our bi-weekly VIP virtual Lunch & Learns, lead by women across a wide spectrum of fields.

This is why we were thrilled to partner with such a like minded company in Pluralsight, who are making it easy to keep up with technology through expert-led courses, assessments, and tools in fields such as software development, IT ops, data, and cyber security, for an evening of networking and learning on November 28th.

READ MORE Show less
© Rebelmouse 2018