Lab Coat Confidential: Where Coding Meets Art

Fall programs have flown past the halfway mark, meaning that many of our classes have already met with scientist mentors from a range of Science Center companies!  We work closely with mentors to help design engaging experiences for our students, and it’s always a fun challenge to sit down with a new mentor and figure out how to convey their innovative, often-complex work to middle schoolers.

Gargi Pednekar, a Principal Software Engineer at Quantitative Radiology Solutions (QRS), has been thriving as our newest mentor.  Gargi develops algorithms and 3D models that help doctors more accurately target tumors during radiation therapy.  Read on to learn about how she’s connected art and science throughout her life!

What’s your favorite part of your job?

I have incredible mentors.  I learn from them because they have been doing this for 35 years, but they are also receptive to ideas.  One incentive of working at a research startup is having the freedom to create things, thinking, “I can modify or improve this; this has never been thought about before; I would like to implement that.”

The output of your work is visual – could you talk about the role of art in your job?

When I mentored for DNA Selfie, I told the girls about how aesthetics matter a lot. For example, when we create 3D renditions of organs of the body for clinicians to see, there should be visual appeal.  But you don’t want to deteriorate the clinically important information, so how do you balance that? That’s where art comes in.

What’s your relationship with art outside of your job?

While growing up, art was my thing.  I was good at it and it came naturally.  It’s meditation, and it helps me through many things. So I enjoy it in a very personal kind of way. I did not take it up as a career, but I think everybody should be connected to one form of art.  Mine is sketching, drawing, and painting (and doodling during lectures!)

Why did you decide to become a FirstHand mentor?

I’ve always liked the work FirstHand does.  I find there’s a great value in educating the future generations about things early on.  If they have practical experience, then they are well-informed to make informed decisions, choose a career or a vocation based on their strengths, and then be happy or satisfied in the future.  FirstHand opens students to opportunities in science, technology, and art early on. That is kind of beautiful, and I wanted to help or contribute to that.

What would you say to another scientist that’s considering mentoring?

Definitely do it! Outside your work, it will give you an immense sense of satisfaction in contributing to something greater. FirstHand is doing a wonderful  job.

Let’s shift gears and talk about middle school. What were you like in middle school, and when did you know that you wanted to be a scientist?

I was chatty and mischievous as well as studious.  I would do my homework and sometimes complain about it.  I was quite fond of math and science, because it helped me understand things better.  I wasn’t certain about being a scientist in middle school, but because I liked science and math I proceeded with them, eventually focusing on biomedical engineering for my undergrad. After that, different opportunities opened up and I just went with the flow, with things that interested me. Being open-minded matters.  You don’t want to be restricted by titles like “genetic engineer” or “doctor.”  I never was.

What advice would you give to a middle school girl who wants to be a computer scientist?

It’s fun, so you should do it! Don’t be scared.  Really, don’t be scared about it.  I guess it is intimidating at first because you don’t see many female coders out there.  It’s OK to take inspiration from male coders too.  Just try it out and see if it gives you a sense of satisfaction or fulfillment.  If you like it, I think you can do it, so go ahead!

If you could go on a field trip to anywhere in time or space, where would you go?

I would like to travel in time and shadow influential people. I’d like to shadow Leonardo da Vinci – you know, stalk him a bit and see the things that were in the back of his head as he was doing his artwork.  As long as he doesn’t see me!