Alumni Spotlight: Hannah Voelker
Since graduating in May 2018 with bachelor’s degrees in computer science and biomedical engineering, Hannah Voelker has been working at Grail, a California startup seeking to develop blood tests for early cancer detection. Hannah recently returned to campus to share what she has learned over the past year.
The following interview took place with the Department of Computer Science on April 30, 2019.
Why did you choose to work at Grail?
I liked their mission. I knew I wanted to work in biotech from my biomedical engineering background – I like the idea of a product that could change the way we screen for cancer. But I was also interested in the tech – a complex software system. It’s a good fit for me. The software engineers still see this biological problem—finding a cancerous DNA signal in the blood amongst other signals-- as a software problem, which fits my interests perfectly. What we deliver is the product of machine learning.
Did you have other choices?
Yes. They included the big company where I interned at while I was an undergraduate. But it was too bureaucratic. I also looked at other biotech startups, but Grail had the combination of good tech, a mission I could feel good about, and early data that indicated they were headed in the right direction.
When did you become interested in biotech?
My interest started during high school. I grew up near Johns Hopkins, so genetic technology was all around me. In fact, I was into biology before I was into computer science. I took Comp 11 the fall of sophomore year. I loved the camaraderie in the labs and the team atmosphere in Halligan Hall. Coding is interesting. I thought the wet lab was boring, but the bioinformatics was interesting. The big thing that I like is that a computer does exactly what I tell it do do.
What did you learn at Tufts?
Tufts taught me about all the challenges that exist in the world and made me want to work on one of them instead of just 9-5 in industry and calling it a day. I was on the e-board for Women in Computer Science in my junior year, and in the Society of Women Engineers. I also did track and cross country my first two years. I still run.
What would you change, if anything, about your career at Tufts?
I would take courses that I wasn’t comfortable with as an elective. For example, I didn’t take a course in databases. I’d push myself more, take harder courses. Companies don’t care about your grades, just that you learned something in areas they find useful. I’ve grown up a lot since college. I would tell students to know that sometimes things seem out of reach, but ... I’m very surprised at how well-prepared I was.
Where do you see yourself a few years from now?
I plan to stay at Grail a few years after they release their multi-cancer screening product. Then I’ll either go deeper into cancer research or go elsewhere, bridging some gap in healthcare products. I might possibly get a master’s degree, or look for a bioinformatics-related position. I used to think that pure engineering was what I wanted. Now my goal is maybe to be a team leader. It would be really cool to get more Tufts students at Grail.
What are you up to completely unrelated to tech?
I’ve started hiking a lot. I’m hiking as many trails as I can, mostly with my dog. The views are beautiful and the weather is great. Fort Funston is really beautiful.
May students get in touch with you?
Yes. I love to talk about what I do, and we’re always hiring. Alumni who are considering a job change can get in touch as well.
Are you connected to Tufts alumni?
I’m on the reunion committee!
Is there anything else you’d like to say?
I can’t be more grateful for my education at Tufts.