First Authorship During Her Co-Op: Align Student Merges Biology and CS

April 30, 2019

By Benjamin Hosking, Staff Writer

For Khoury College student Irena Kushner (Align MSCS’19), studying at Northeastern University opened her eyes to an interdisciplinary career. By her senior year as an undergraduate at Northeastern – she received her bachelor’s degree in 2015 – Kushner knew that she did not want to go into medicine with her biology degree, but she still wanted to use her undergraduate knowledge to make a difference. Though intrigued, she did not think she could study for a computer science master’s degree – until she found the Align program. She matriculated at the Seattle campus in 2016.

Align opened a “whole new realm of possibilities” in CS that Kushner had not considered, thanks to its highly applicable skillset. During her classes on information retrieval and distributed systems, she enjoyed a project building a ski resort to see which ski lifts users were at and where they were going. “I liked that the project began simply and gradually became more complex and powerful as the semester went on.”

Outside of class, Kushner applied her biology knowledge to her 2018 co-op at the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory. Kushner worked with research scientists with backgrounds in biology to analyze their vast trove of data.  As the computer scientist on the team, Kushner built a human tissue classifier using machine learning. The results were so promising that she is the first author on a now-published research paper in the Journal of Proteome Research.

“Machine learning can make sense of huge amounts of data, finding patterns in it that humans can’t,” Kushner points out. She adds, “With things like DNA sequencing or proteomics analysis producing really large datasets, there is an opportunity for machine learning to provide new insights. This could potentially contribute to solutions in personalized medicine, which I think is an exciting idea.”

Kushner notes her inspirational lecturers and advisors in the Align program’s Seattle location. As an example, she brings up Northeastern lecturer Raman “Chandra” Chandrasekar. Kushner says, “I really liked Chandra’s lecture style – he’d bring up funny, memorable stories from his time at Microsoft.” These examples would serve as problems for the class to solve. Outside of class, “he was a really nice guy to talk to about career questions.”

For her future career, Kushner hopes to work adjacent to health sciences. She would like to apply computer science to healthcare through her skills in data science and machine learning. Kushner is off to a good start – last summer she interned at Accolade, an employee health and benefits tech company. Reflecting on her experience, Kushner explains that it showed her vividly “how data science can be used in a more immediate way, focusing on health insurance and helping people get the best outcomes from their healthcare experiences.”