Lena Joesch-Cohen first heard about the field of computational biology in her ninth-grade history class, Big History.
“It covered the history of the universe, such as how the stars were created, the big bang theory and the history of Homo sapiens,” Joesch-Cohen said.
She has always enjoyed puzzles, particularly logic puzzles, and was drawn to the areas of mathematics and science. At Brown, she concentrated in computational biology and was the only one in her friend group who started out as a computational biology concentrator and stuck with it.
“I enjoy how the computational aspect challenges me and is also applicable to the field of medicine and clinical work,” Joesch-Cohen said.
In the spring of 2018, Joesch-Cohen took a class taught by Eric Morrow, M.D., Ph.D., a co-lead of the Hassenfeld Institute’s Autism Initiative, called Human Genetics and Genomics. There, she learned more about human genetic conditions and rare diseases.
Joesch-Cohen enjoyed the class so much that she applied to become a Hassenfeld Summer Scholar the following summer, where she continued in Dr. Morrow’s lab, working on a variety of computational projects, one of which became her senior thesis.
“I was looking broadly at all genes on the x chromosome associated with intellectual disability,” Joesch-Cohen said.
Joesch-Cohen was mentored by Dr. Morrow and by Ece Gamsiz Uzun, Ph.D., M.S., who is the director of clinical bioinformatics at Lifespan and also a member of the Autism Initiative genetics group. Dr. Uzun is an assistant professor in pathology and laboratory medicine at theWarren Alpert Medical School.
“She’s very warm and open, so coming to her with questions didn’t feel stressful at all. Eric and Ece gave me direction and would help me when I got stuck, so I was able to choose what I wanted to research. It was just a very caring sort of mentorship,” Joesch-Cohen said.
Joesch-Cohen was co-author on two publications based on her work with the Autism Initiative, and she was a teaching assistant her senior year in Dr. Morrow’s human genetics class, an experience that she described as “incredible” and “a lot of fun.” Dr. Morrow found her teaching abilities to be exceptional.
"Lena ran a weekly discussion session for the students who were reading complicated papers. The sessions were optional, but over the semester, attendance grew and many were regular attendees. She really helped the students feel more comfortable speaking up with their ideas in subsequent class discussions," Dr. Morrow said.
Upon graduating from Brown in 2019, Joesch-Cohen was awarded the Biology Undergraduate Education Senior Biology Prize for Academic Excellence in the Biological Sciences.
Because she enjoyed teaching in Dr. Morrow's class, Joesch-Cohen spent five months after graduating as a teaching fellow in physics at the Alzar School, a semester school based in Cascade, Idaho, where high school sophomores and juniors participate in significant outdoor expeditions.
“I wanted to do something focused less on academics right after graduating, and I wanted to spend more time outdoors because that’s something I really enjoy. I also really like teaching, and I may work toward a teaching role,” Joesch-Cohen said.
Currently, Joesch-Cohen is an associate computational biologist at the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard, a position she has held since January 2020. There, she works with the cancer data science group.
She credits the Summer Scholars Program with giving her more technical experience, such as RNA sequencing analysis, and she has recommended the program to friends who are interested in public health and biomedicine.
“The biggest benefit of the Hassenfeld Summer Scholars Program was that it helped me get a leg up on finding a lab to work in. It was also helpful to be a part of a project that was aligned with the type of research that I wanted to do,” Joesch-Cohen said.