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Emilio Ortiz, Cal Poly Pomona

Emilio grew up in the Cayo District of Belize where their high school system requires one to choose an academic focus among business, science or engineering. He chose engineering and never wavered, receiving his Bachelors in Computer Engineering at Cal Poly Pomona (CPP). As an undergraduate at CPP, Emilio interned during summers for several companies including Southern California Edison and Parasoft Corporation where he specialized in automated testing of software and websites. During the school year, Emilio worked for the Cal Poly Pomona IT department and received an assignment to configure a server on the far end of campus to communicate with Amazon Web Services. The lab where the server resided puts together and analyzes genomes. The interface of big data, computers and biology was not something being taught in the Computer Engineering courses, but he thought it was interesting. While working on the server, he started asking questions to research scientist Dr. Youngsook You, and by the time he finished the installation he decided this was pretty cool. Dr. You recognized his computer skills and knowledge and offered to teach him bioinformatics and sponsor him for a Master’s degree. His project would be to put together and compare the genomes of the cut flower Gerbera hybrida and its wild progenitor G. jamesonii, a plant that grows in South Africa. The genomic data would allow breeders to develop DNAbased markers to develop varieties with longer-lasting flowers and greater disease resistance.

Although he had never taken an agriculture, genetics or biology class, he decided to take Dr. You up on her offer and joined an ag program for his Masters. He easily learned scripting (Pearl, Python, R) and found biology classes interesting, but way different than any of his previous classes. When asked the difference between being an undergraduate and graduate student, he replied, “in graduate school you have to be able to learn on your own, to teach yourself. You also have to really understand things so you have to read a lot. You especially have to have a good answer when your professor asks you why you did something this way”. Emilio concedes that his program was difficult, but amazingly satisfying once you have accomplished something. He said he was always super shy but once he started going to conferences and networking events and interviews, he became much more comfortable meeting people and networking. What will Emilio do with this unique background once he graduates? He has already been hired by Pfizer as a technical analyst to work on a joint Amazon/Pfizer bioinformatics/pharma project.