Dr Mileidy Giraldo, Global Lead for Life Sciences at Lenovo’s HPC and AI Group, shares how being in roles that intersected fields and cultures has helped her and her team achieve various breakthroughs throughout her career; as well as tips for moving towards a more diverse workforce.
I am the child of a single mother, a first-generation college graduate, and Hispanic woman in a STEM field where most of my colleagues are Caucasian, native-English speaking men from families where higher education is a given. While some may think that such circumstances could only mean a life of limited prospects, my triple-minority background has been the key to excelling in multi-disciplinary groups at the intersection of medicine and cutting-edge technology.
Forging a career path by fulfilling all parts of you
As I was always at the top of my class, I grew up hoping to use my knowledge to help others. When I was 17, I moved from Colombia, South America to the United States to study molecular biology and chemistry, working towards becoming a medical doctor. But something was missing: I excelled at quantitative analysis, but I wasn’t using those skills.
Fortunately, I embarked on a research internship where I was serendipitously assigned to a bioinformatics lab even though I had no prior experience coding or much exposure to technology. This is where I learned that the first human genome had just been sequenced and that by intersecting high-performance computing (HPC), math, and biology, bioinformatics was becoming the answer to tackling the genomics data deluge. I started coding for the first time and eureka, I finally found something I could happily do even without being paid! This was a vocation that fulfilled all parts of me: math, healthcare, technology.
After supplementing my college education with math and programming courses, I pursued a Ph.D. in Bioinformatics where my interdisciplinary background allowed me to find an out-of-the-box answer to an algorithmic riddle that had puzzled seasoned scientists for almost two decades.
That simple yet creative discovery earned me a spot as a Post-doctoral researcher at the National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI), at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) — the world’s premier biomedical research agency.
At NIH, I led the Next-Generation Sequencing (NGS) analytics and biostatistics of multi-disciplinary projects, collaborating with agencies like the Vaccine Research Center (VRC), National Cancer Institute (NCI), and the Institute of Human Virology. Without even planning to, I became a ninja coder fluent in 14 different programming languages.
Two years ago, I decided to contribute to health sciences from a different perspective and scale by joining Lenovo. In line with the company’s commitment to solving humanity’s greatest challenges by harnessing the power of data, I now apply the rigours of my scientific background to developing cutting-edge HPC and AI solutions to serve the needs of researchers engaged in Genomics and Precision Medicine.
As Global lead for Life Sciences, I am a bridge between our HPC-savvy Lenovo folks and our bioinformatics customers worldwide.
By integrating diversity and expertise, my Lenovo team has recently achieved an unprecedented breakthrough in HPC performance – by developing GOAST, a Genomics Optimisation And Scalability Tool that significantly accelerates genomics analytics which is the basic methodology powering discoveries in vaccines for illnesses such as COVID-19.
Marching toward change: Overcoming the odds by bridging intersections
Unfortunately, societal standards have conditioned us to only look for upward metrics of success, so we don’t even notice the more flexible, horizontal, and interstitial paths. Throughout my career, most colleagues didn’t look or speak like me, yet I found my place by owning and leading from roles that intersected fields and cultures.
Most recently at Lenovo, my team comprising both genomics and HPC technology experts worked together to solve a problem that neither group could have on their own. With access to various skillsets, we were able to achieve this breakthrough before others in the industry.
It’s clear that diversity is key to organisation success so let’s delve into what we can all do to march towards change.
In the US, women make up only 26% of the professional computing workforce, and I am part of the tiny 2% of Hispanic female coders. What support can employers provide to women and other minorities to help them thrive in STEM?
My first suggestion is that whenever possible, companies should implement flexible workplace arrangements. As the main caretakers in most households, women have to juggle various responsibilities so their professional development can become secondary.
I firmly believe that performance should be evaluated against goals instead of time spent in the office. When I have had the flexibility to be a mom and caretaker, I’ve worked even harder and felt more satisfied and loyal to my organisation.
In addition to policies, mentorship and support groups are also vital to creating a sense of belonging and providing guidance. Committed to attracting and retaining female talent, Lenovo has a Women’s Leadership Development Programme that helps our employees grow into executive-level positions, while our Women in Lenovo Leadership group regularly organises career workshops and networking sessions, providing our women with a strong support system.
Our strengths and weaknesses are two sides of the same coin. While most of us are too polite, overthink, and are hesitant to take risks, we are highly empathetic and thus often become the glue that keeps diverse teams thriving.
I dare women to embrace the untrodden, and perhaps even unpopular path. Don’t focus on the differences that limit you, but on those that help you to achieve things no one else can.
In fact, many of our limitations are self-imposed; I know that when my colleagues look at me, they don’t see skin color, accented English, or an underprivileged background, but a capable and dependable colleague whose expertise they can leverage to accomplish the team’s goals.
Find, own, and bridge the lesser-known critical spaces that lie between fields because the future is hybrid.
The most promising nascent fields are interdisciplinary and in desperate need of those who can translate, adapt, and connect across culture, language, and expertise.
My current career was only formally named one year before I stumbled upon it!
School is only the first step, but consistent and lifelong self-learning is what shapes your professional and personal growth. There is no fixed route to success.
Reinvent yourself until you find the path that fulfills all parts of you. Take the initiative to “learn how to learn” so that you can join those who came before you in solving humanity’s greatest challenges.
About the author
Dr Mileidy Giraldo leads Lenovo’s Genomics R&D team in speeding up genome sequencing for the development of precision medicine and vaccines. To this end, her team has created Lenovo’s Genomics Optimisation And Scalability Tool (GOAST), a CPU-based architecture that helps reduce the time taken to process a single human genome - from 150 hours to a record-breaking 48 minutes.
A ninja coder fluent in at least 14 different programming languages, Dr Giraldo has amassed close to 20 years of scientific research and business leadership experience in High-Performance Computing (HPC) and AI applied to Life Sciences.
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