Phosphorus coffee chat

Have you ever thought about what your genes say about you? We aren’t talking about flare verse straight leg, but whether you are genetically prone to certain diseases or infertility. We met with the Phosphorous interns, Manisha (‘19 BSE Chemical and Biological Engineering), David (‘19 BSE Computer Science), Maria (‘19 AB Ecology and Evolutionary Biology), and Agustin Zavala (‘18 AB Molecular Biology)  to understand more about their experience working on the forefront of genomic innovation.  

Phosphorus seeks to use information contained in the human genome to gain a better understanding of disease. To that end, Phosphorus has developed a set of cutting-edge clinical genetic tests as well as a SaaS platform for managing clinical data. Phosphorus is using the genetic data gained from its tests to create a comprehensive cloud-based network for clinical genomics and do machine-learning studies with the aim of better understanding gene-disease associations.


What sort of work/projects are you involved with?

David: I’ve been working on a bunch of small features as part of the team’s agile development cycle. So far, most of these features have related to distributor preference scoping. On our platform, distributors should be able to set certain variables (like UI colors/fonts, preferences for viewing testing results, etc) and have them cascade down to individual clinics and patients. Individual clinics and patients should however be able to override some of these preferences without affecting other people in the same permission group. I’ve been developing mostly in Scala, which is basically Java with functional programming capabilities, using the Wicket and Hibernate frameworks.

Maria: As a Business Development/Product Development/Marketing intern. I’ve done a lot of different things including editing marketing materials, determining which medical and big data conferences Phosphorus should attend in 2018, providing changes to the website, designing a social media campaign, and contacting possible guest authors for the Phosphorus blog. Currently I am researching about 4,000 hospitals to help us determine which ones we can target as potential clients first, based on a myriad of factors including their respective total revenues, presence of genetic counselors and a clinical genetics department, and next-generation sequencing capabilities.

Agustin: I am a part of the R&D team. As such I am tasked with developing new diagnostic tests. I basically have searched through different literature and catalogued what different genes are involved in specific neurological diseases. The most recent test that the company is developing is a neurology panel. As such I have determined what diseases are involved in typically neuro panels. After selecting a set of diseases I determined and specified what genes are involved and what the location of these genes are within the genome. Additionally, I helped develop new assays to determine different mutations within diseases that cannot be analyzed through Next-Generation Sequencing (NGS).

Manisha: As a Research and Development intern, my work focuses on the bioinformatics that guides variant curation. In other words, I’ve been performing computational/statistical analyses on the DNA sequences coming from Next-Generation Sequencing (NGS) data to identify and evaluate genetic variants, or mutations in the sequences, that result in a particular phenotype. These variants will ultimately undergo variant curation and may potentially end up as the variants that will be tested for during the genetic tests that Phosphorus provides. I am currently working on identifying new variants that are associated with infertility in women to augment their FertilityMap product. I primarily use Python, although I also use command-line tools such as PLINK and Genome Analysis Toolkit (GATK).

Having talked with different members of your team, what is some advice they shared that stuck in your mind or surprised you?

Agustin: I definitely thought the most insightful moment was the the lunch with the CEO. He told us about his story and about his struggle. It was insanely helpful and made me realize how important it is to be willing to take risk. While I still do not know if I want to go right into starting my own company it has made me realize how precious time is and how important it is to simply “do it” when you are thinking about starting a company.

David: We had lunch with the CEO of Phosphorus, who’s a Princeton alum (Class of 2009) and he shared some really useful insight on the kinds of cofounder relationships that lead to successful startups. I was also surprised to hear his opinion that Boston VCs are more “traditional” compared to NYC VCs. From my experience last year doing bioinformatics research at Harvard it seemed to me like Boston VCs were pretty adventurous as well.

What is your work environment like?

Manisha: I work with the rest of the interns on Intern Island, which is one of the many mini islands in the open-concept space of our office. Something I enjoy is that the work environment is a bit unstructured: work hours are flexible, there are no fixed number of vacation days, there is no fixed lunch time, etc. Additionally, everyone here is very friendly and helpful, even outside of my department. Phosphorus encourages learning, both regarding the work different departments are doing and about new things in general, which is evident in our weekly Lunch and Learn sessions. The only downside of working here is that the air conditioning vent is directed right at me, so I usually drink several cups of tea throughout the day as an excuse to keep my hands warm.

Maria: I love that I can see what the other interns are working on, especially since they’re all doing something completely different from what I am doing. They’ve inspired me to finally learn to code on my own, and have taught me a lot about working hard at the tasks you are given.

How has your experience influenced what you want to be involved with/what you want to do/what you think about startups?

Manisha: Before this summer, I was set on working at a big pharma company after graduation for a few years before going to grad school or business school. However, given the flexibility, impact, and greater opportunities to learn at a startup, I am considering working in a smaller company or start-up (or perhaps even starting my own) in the future. I’ve come to see that biotech startups are making big waves in the health industry and pursuing meaningful research.

David: My time at Phosphorus has definitely made me more open to the possibility of doing my own startup if the opportunity arises. Before the summer, I had this impression that startups were all about pursuing the latest, most hip trends, and not necessarily about doing solid work with long term vision. My time at Phosphorus has definitely shown me that this isn’t true. Also, it’s improved my impression of industry in terms of software engineering and research. I plan to get a PhD after Princeton, but academia isn’t necessarily the end goal for me now.

Maria: I love working at a startup. Sometimes it doesn’t even feel like I am at work. During my first few days at Phosphorus, I was taken aback by the laid-back nature and the flexibility of working here. It made me realize that I want to end up working for a startup in the future, but also that I do not want to work at one right after graduation. I think there is a lot to be learned for me in perhaps a more corporate environment that I can then use at whatever startup I work at in the future; I need to experience a few years of strict hours and deadlines before I can chill out again. That being said, if I don’t end up at another startup in 10 years, pinch me and ask me what I am doing.

Agustin: I definitely want to work in a startup. I just need to think what I want my first company to be like and when I want to start working on my own. There is definitely a large amount of things that I need to learn in this next year but I am very excited. I might try to work at a larger company before I spin off to begin my own company.

Madelynn Prendergast