Travelogue: ASM NGS 2022, Baltimore

On October 16th around 6 AM the plane taking me to Baltimore, Maryland took off from the Hobby airport in Houston. I generally do not mind very early morning flights, and since I still retain the magical (and much envied) ability to sleep on the planes the commute was fine. I arrive in BWI around 10 AM and after picking up my luggage headed directly for the Sheraton Inner Harbor hotel. The hotel did not have an early check-in option available, so I dropped off my bags and went for a walk. I found a neat coffee shop and spent a bit of time catching up on some reading.

Inner harbor in Baltimore, Maryland, around 10:45 AM. Not the best shot, but I managed to catch a bird in this one, so I am posting it.
Inner harbor in Baltimore, Maryland, still around 10:45 AM. Still not the best shot, but also I didn’t take any particularly good ones this time. I guess being awake since 3 AM ain’t helpful for my artistic eye.
Washington monument at Mt. Vernon in Baltimore, Maryland, circa noon. Quality of the shots improves as the day goes on.

After the coffee break, I met up with Evan Mata and we caught up on school life, travel stories, and I finally got my oyster fix. Two key takeaways from our lunch were as follows: (1) we both wish we took more math courses in college (and in fact this appears to be a common trend for many of my college friends), and (2) Maryland oysters are still delicious, albeit not as cheap as I remembered.

After the lunch I made it back to the hotel where I finally could check in and catch my breath before the opening keynotes for the ASM NGS 2022. Besides the keynotes, and a brief chat over dinner the first day was not jam packed with activities, so I was able to crash early and catch up on some of the sleep that I missed due to the early flight.

Next day I attended a series of the talks in the morning, after which I headed for the University of Maryland, College Park. UMD campus is quite expansive, and in some strange way it reminded me of the University of Tennessee in Knoxville. The computer science building at UMD is quite impressive both in size and design, and many offices tend to have nice floor to ceiling windows, which is an awesome touch. I did not have too much time to explore the campus, as the visit was relatively tightly packed with meetings, and as soon as those were wrapped up I headed back to Baltimore.

E. A. Fernandez IDEA Factory on the University of Maryland College Park campus. The only shot I took at the UMD campus (sadly, since the campus is quite pretty IMHO).

Although, I unfortunately missed most of the afternoon talks on the first day, I still managed to catch the poster session. In general, I am a big fan of poster sessions. The main benefit of a poster (as opposed to a talk) is the ability to ask a multitude of questions about the nitty-gritty details of the work without feeling guilty of encroaching on other people’s time. I found a good number of quite interesting posters relating to SARS-CoV-2, bacteria and horizontal gene transfer, and even a poster on a speed up for neighbor-joining algorithm. After the poster session I briefly caught up with Mike Nute over dinner which importantly included a crab cake (another checklist food item for me on this trip).

Grabbing dinner with Mike Nute at Phillips Seafood in Baltimore, Maryland. Quite solid crab cake and overall good spread of seafood. Very enjoyable dinner option not too far from the conference hotel location.

The crab cake ended up being quite good, although I have a feeling that with a bit of effort I can probably make a comparable if not a better one at home. However, crab meat is not cheap to come by, so I am not likely to test that hypothesis any time in the near future.

Tuesday was a full conference day for me. I attended all of the talks that day, and tried to keep a list of close notes for most of them. Unfortunately the tables at the conference did not have any outlets or power strips connecting to them or running along the floor. Thus, my note taking was cut short towards the second half of the afternoon, as my laptop ran out of its battery.

The last talk session of they day was a wastewater focused mini-symposium. The talks in this session were quite interesting, and indeed reflected a lot of my experiences and concerns when dealign with wastewater data. Namely, issues of the data quality, metadata annotation, and general complexity of the wastewater samples, which in certain cases ends up being overlooked. I was very happy that I was able to give a talk in this session as well. I was presenting the joint work between Treangen and Stadler labs at Rice University in conjunction with the Houston Health Department. My talk focused on QuaID: a software package we developed for sensitive detection of recently emerged SARS-CoV-2 variants in wastewater sequencing data (preprinted at medRxiv).

My first conference talk looked something like this. ASM NGS 2022, Day 2, wastewater session.
Some scallops (which were yummy) at the Watershed in Baltimore, Maryland. Post talk dinner feels good, although sitting on a rooftop terrace might not have been the best decision given it was in the low 50 F range?

Overall the talk went very well, and I enjoyed the experience. Of course, as any public performance giving the talk came with a fair deal of stage fright and nervousness. However, extensive practice runs with my labmates, adviser, and collaborators helped a lot in mitigating anxiety, and polishing the presentation content. As per usual, I do think that several moments could have been executed better on my part, but I’ll hope to use that as the knowledge for preparing my next presentations.

The evening continued on into another poster session with a fair number of exciting wastewater and clinical SARS-CoV-2 work, as well as some benchmarking studies of interest. I felt that the second poster session was a tad bit more lively than the first one, but it also could have been an artifact of my post-talk state. After the poster session, I joined a large-ish group of attendees for dinner and chats. Scallops were not on my Baltimore food checklist, but among the seafood options offered at the Watershed they stood out as an interesting choice. Overall I enjoyed them, although next time I will probably go for the crab cakes.

The last day of the conference was relatively short with only a morning session of the talks. There was a plenty of interesting talks this day, and I was quite pleasantly surprised to hear several talks involving deep learning in a principled and well motivated way. The only drawback of this session was the amount of lightning talks given back to back. It was at times hard to properly note down all the details, and due to the format and the fact that this was the last day it was harder to follow up with the presenters to discuss some of the finer details of their work. However, I still managed to take a good amount of notes, and expand my “papers to read” list by a dozen or so manuscripts.

After the conference, I checked out of the hotel and headed to our last stop before the airport: Johns Hopkins University. First we stopped by the medical campus and grabbed a lunch, which consisted of an absolutely wonderful lamb stew with rice. Then we moved to the Homewood campus pictures of which are attached below.

Afghani food at Kabobi in Baltimore, Maryland near JHU Medical Campus. Amazing lamb stew with veggies, a very hearty and comfortable meal.

Being on JHU Homewood campus reminded me of one of the greatest pleasures in the fall season: observing the colorful trees in a light cool breeze. However, similarly to the UMD visit, I did not have much time to wander around and observe the trees, as we mainly focused on the scheduled meetings.

At the end of the trip I was absolutely exhausted, but overall happy with the experience. I managed to tick off several of the key food checklist items on this visit. Of course more importantly, I really enjoyed attending the ASM NGS conference, and finally being able to experience an in-person conference. Giving a talk was a huge added benefit, and all the meetings, lunches, and dinners with multiple new and old acquaintances and collaborators (some of whom I finally got to see in person) made this a very memorable trip.

Getting back to Houston late at night I was reminded that this is a spooky season 🎃!

I went to Chicago

Usually I tend to write long winded posts with many side topics, but today is not the day. The circumstances of our current days are not the happy ones, so I wish to share something that is dear to my heart (and recent to my memory).

I visited Chicago (again) from March 11th to 20th in the year of 2022. My wife was attending APS March meeting and I was just tagging along for a fun visit. The weather was more pleasant than I usually recall from March in Chicago (thanks no thanks global warming). It was a fun trip, less so on the sightsee side (due to the busy schedule), and much more so on the social side, since I finally reconnected in person with my friends.

The feeling of being back in the city was amazing. The CTA, albeit being slower due to worker shortages, was lovely. Food and bar scene was great as always. I was sad about the closure of Lost Lake, and even more so about my favorite mezcal bar Todos Santos going out. However, Three Dots and a Dash was still a shining spot with all the usual buzz, and even though I didn’t end grabbing a spot at Havana Grill I am glad it’s still around. I finally made my way into the Aviary (with many thanks to Carter Grieve and Hana for actually pushing though on this), and it was a lovely experience.

I didn’t catch any museums this trip due to my stupid stomach acting up for a few days in a row, but I still caught a few murals and architectural pieces in my free time.

All in all, I am just happy to share a few photos, that capture some of the highlights of the trip, and I hope I’ll be back to more regular blogging some time in the near future.

One day I had a bunch of free time to take a couple hour walk from the West Loop area to the Downtown and then to Adler Planetarium. It was a beautiful day, so I snapped this little panorama of the Chicago
skyline on the way.
Salonica diner on 57th Street. The place with associated with so many memories and good times. Two goofy fellas accompanying me for most of undergraduate times are attached. Steak and eggs as per usual are my go to choice, and it never dissapoints.
Huge thanks to Carter Grieve for hosting us for a few nights and providing a wonderful short ribs dinner. After spending a few evenings at his place I am convinced to start making my own clear ice for the cocktails. Also the gears of kitchen optimization have started turning in my head. Thanks for the lovely ambiance and wholesome hangout time.
Catching a dinner at Las Tablas. If you have some extra time in Chicago, I highly recommend stopping by this place. The best skirt steak I ever had is served here, and combining it with some seafood or chicken turns the whole experience into a protein loaded fiesta.
Diego pictured in the anticipation of the above mentioned steak and seafood combination. By the way, do not skip on the Cafe Colombiano option either, it’ll stimulate your appetite and give you enough energy to work through the big portions served here.
Good old Ryerson Laboratory on University of Chicago campus never fails to greet me with the same quote.
Last but not least, hanging out by the mural right outside of the Honeybear Cafe in Rogers Park, Chicago. Many thanks to Carter for introducing us to the place, and to Hana for snapping this wonderful picture.

One day I might have something intelligent to say about the world and what we are doing in it, for now however I will stick to being happy about having wonderful friends and sharing great memories together.

2019: A year in review

Travel

This year was quite eventful in terms of travel, both domestic and international. I started off with getting on a project in Connecticut, so starting the last week of January I was flying from Chicago to LaGuardia every Monday, and flying back out every Thursday. Of course this was a prime opportunity to rack up miles and hotel points, which came in handy later throughout the year. I also used my constant travel as an excuse to visit a few of my friends spread all across the US. I made stops in NYC, Philadelphia, Austin, and Boston. I also took a trip to New Orleans, which was a long standing bucket list item for me and my friend Cris. In between these fun trips, I also squeezed in a few more career related ones, including visiting Baltimore and Houston for graduate program weekends, and returning to Baltimore again for BPS’19.

The next major trip I undertook was going back home to Chisinau, Moldova for the entire month of July. It was a relaxing and fun time, and I mostly used it to unwind after a work intensive year. It also was an interim in my moving process from Chicago down to Houston. In the beginning of August, I flew back to Chicago, packed the last few suitcases (not really) and headed south.

I got to Houston mid-August, and the entire move-in process went extremely smooth thanks to my awesome roommate Robert, who helped organize common spaces in the apartment. I took another quick trip to Boston, to enjoy the last grill session of the (northern) season, and began my studies. I then also took two trips to Chicago, one for the autumn recess and one for Thanksgiving. Both trips were fun, and coming back to Chicago felt like coming home.

Finally at the end of this year I took a trip to Spain. It was an ambitious itinerary listing more than 5 cities and mostly organized and planned by Rachel. I pre-gamed the trip by spending a day in NYC, and then headed to Barcelona. From Barcelona we visited Girona and Figueres as day trips. Both trips were amazing, and I would totally recommend them to anyone spending some time in Barcelona. Then we took a train to Madrid. It was a packed schedule, and seeing Prado in one day is obviously a challenge, but we succeeded. The next stops were all in the south of Spain. Starting from Seville (with a day trip to Cordoba), onto Ronda and finally Granada, it was a route packed with great views and amazing foods. We rounded everything up by flying back to Barcelona and then in a day to NYC.

Thus, this year beings me into the great New York City! I will be heading back to Houston soon, but in the meantime, I am going to enjoy some bagels, pizza and public transport.

Work

I spent the first half of this year working on a project as a consultant with TruQua Enterprises, which involved quite a bit of travel and interactions with clients. It was an engaging opportunity to learn more about inner workings of a large business, and assist people by providing technological insights into their processes. I feel like I learned to be a better speaker and conversationalist, as well as, an attentive and active listener. Even if some days were slower or more heavy on the grunt work, I feel like I grew a lot through this experience.

In the second half of the year I have started my PhD in Computer Science at Rice University. My first semester was a combination of learning from courses and from peers in the lab. I took a great course on optimization taught by Tasos Kyrillidis. It was a mix of nice and fun math with solid practical motivation coming from the field of machine learning. I would absolutely recommend this course to anyone who has a chance of attending and is at all interested in anything mathematical or machine learning related. I also spent a lot of time working on a project in Treangen Lab, which was both stimulating and fruitful. I learned a lot of new material through this work, and strengthened some of my skills in data preparation and visualization.

Research

In the first half of this year I continued my work on the conformational transition pathways of insulin degrading enzyme and in early March I presented a poster on it at Biophysical Society Annual Meeting. It is an exciting project and it involved a lot of hours and effort both in learning and implementing simulations and analysis. I have continued this work by conducting more analysis, proposing a coarse grained model and starting out a set of swarm of trajectories simulations for determining the conformational transition dynamics of this protein. As the year progressed, I got busy with other projects and my current involvement with the project became minimal. I am currently finalizing some write ups and planning on handing over the project to the next students.

At Rice, I joined in on a project that involved graph theoretic analysis of metagenomic read data. It was my first research experience in genomics and metagenomics and I felt amazing about it. I was happy to contribute my knowledge of graph theory and general computer science to this exciting area. This project was developed in collaboration with Advait Balaji, a second year PhD student in Treangen lab. Throughout the entire process I had an amazing support from my mentors and our collaborators.

Overall, I’m happy to continue my work in the area of computational genomics and metagenomics. This is an exciting area, and I feel like I can both learn a lot and contribute significant work in the process.

As usual my research interests remain broad and lie at the intersection of mathematics, computer science and biology. I am looking forward to developing more work that can be directly applicable in both research and clinical environments, but of course that is a lengthy and complicated process.

Personal projects

This year not too many of my personal projects saw light, although I made a lot of progress on some. Overall, I feel that I carved out a few main directions for my personal work and I plan to strengthen and pursue those further in 2020.

First major initiative is exploration and adaptation of different data visualization techniques and tools. I have learned more about color pallettes and colorblind friendly design. I feel that this will make my subsequent projects more aesthetically pleasing and accessible. I also plan to round up a solid review of some basic data analysis pipelines and eventually release it as useful resource for my lab, as well as the community at large. Finally, I plan to finish up my “Where in the world” project, which was a foray into D3.js and geographic visualization.

Next, I am looking to reinforce my paper sorting and reading habits. I was meaning to organize my personal digital library for a while, but was falling short on convenient tools to do so. Therefore, I might eventually to settle either for a mix of practices and tools, or possibly write up some code myself to further streamline the process.

I haven’t worked much with Raspberry Pi or Arduino with the exception of Scav projects this year. While home automation appeals to me, I am not sure I’ll have enough time to invest into it next year, so I think most of these projects will remain on the shelf for a while.

Finally, this blog while not too active, will stay alive and will be an outlet for updates throughout the next year.

Thanks for reading, and see y’all in 2020!

Update on my whereabouts

Good evening world! Long time no see.

A lot of stuff has happened since I the last time I have updated this blog. I’ll go through most of it briefly while focusing on the things relevant for the blog content and my current plans for the upcoming few months.

I gave a super brief lecture on Fourier analysis to several first year students at the University of Chicago (non-math majors). The full write up for this lecture is long overdue, but I hope to finish it some time soon and post the full thing on here. As per usual, since I was trying to include several worked examples into the write up it got bloated very fast and as a result, I wasn’t able to finish it on time.

I have also developed a lot of new content for teaching basics of Python and programming in general. I plan to roll out those as a series of bi-monthly write-ups with Jupyter notebooks attached. The tentative idea is to post those on the first and third Sundays of the month.

I have finished up my job in consulting just a bit too shy of seeing the project go fully live. I had a wonderful time at TruQua Enterprises, and I am glad that my work made a meaningful contribution to the cause. I am not sure whether I’ll end writing up a note about my experiences and what I have learned while working in consulting, but if it happens I’ll share it here as well.

I also traveled back home to Moldova for a month. It was a relaxing experience and I got a chance to be a tourist in my own country visiting two wineries and touring their production and maturation facilities (with a tasting included). I also wrote up a set of problems for the IOI training camp, but due to the issues with creating enough testing sets, those were not used yet. Once the full set has been used by the team for the training purposes, I will make the contents of it, both problems and solutions available to the general public.

Last but not least, I moved to Houston, Texas and have started the PhD program in Computer Science. I am finishing up the orientation week activities and getting ready for an exciting semester ahead of me.

Cheers, and see you soon.

Baltimore, 02/28 – 03/03

Good afternoon world,

I am traveling to Baltimore, MD this weekend for Biophysical Society Annual Meeting. I will be presenting my research on the insulin degrading enzyme (IDE) as a part of the poster session on Sunday at 1:45pm. Feel free to stop by and say hi, and/or inquire more about my research. [doi: 10.1016/j.bpj.2018.11.301].

Hopefully, I will also have some free time to roam around the conference and the city.

I will be presenting tomorrow in the Exhibit Hall C, stand B13. Drop by to say and chat about research!