To know more about me professionally, visit my academic website here. This page is about how I got there.
I was born and raised through early adolescence in the central business district of Baghdad, a city which at the time had a population of around 4 million. This was a lucky happenstance, for I got to experience many things that I otherwise would not have, had I been born in my eventual hometown, the San Francisco Bay Area. I got to live through two wars, the Iran-Iraq War of the 1980s and the Persian Gulf War of 1991. More importantly, I was exposed to a culture, language, and a way of life that is different from the one which would become my own. All this has provided me with a unique life-long perspective that I hope to share in this blog.
Yet, my upbringing was not too different. For while someone born in a small town in Germany could struggle with securing a computer until the age of 14, I had the privilege and the fortune of being born to an affluent and intellectual family, one that saw fit to hand a 5-year old a computer (a Commodore 64!) Even more importantly, I had a father with the foresight and patience to sit down with that 5-year old and teach him how to program, even before he had formally learned how to read or write. Thus would begin the intellectual love affair of my life, a deep dedication to the art and science of computer programming. I would cut my teeth on those two pillars of the skill, Assembly and Basic, until about the time I left Baghdad at the age of 12.
Leaving Baghdad led to a three-month sojourn in Kuala Lumpur, a time during which I developed a lasting appreciation for Southeast Asian cultures and the ultra urbanism of Asian cities. Soon thereafter, my family arrived in the cradle of the technological civilization. What was my vocation by birth became my environment by geography. Programming notwithstanding however, I would, at first, struggle to fit in. My experience would be like that of every other adolescent immigrant. I spoke almost no English, had no friends, and found it excruciatingly difficult to adjust to a culture that was in many important ways different from my own. It was at this time that I also began to struggle with the deeper philosophical questions that would come to define my life. I had begun obsessing, from around the age of 8 or 9, about basic problems. ones simultaneously common and fundamental. They were the existential mysteries that have preoccupied humanity since it stepped out of its stupor and onto the bright intellectual light that could ponder the evening sky. By the time I was 14 or 15, those questions started to take on an almost crushing urgency. I needed to know why I was here and to what end my life ought to be put. It was a struggle that would follow me for the rest of my life (so far!)
During those same years my interest in programming waned, and I turned to the arts, in particular digital art and animation. I would, from around the age of 12 to 15, spend up to 10 hours a day creating and animating virtual creations. For a short time, I thought it would become my life’s career, but by 16 I had come back to programming and the burgeoning internet revolution. Luck would again be on my side as I found myself in the Bay Area as the first dotcom boom began in earnest. Neglecting my high school and later my college studies, I threw myself into founding a number of startups first in the internet and then in the mobile space, long before the mobile revolution (this was early 2000s). It was a period of intense mental and personal development. For my first startup, I worked feverishly over a span of three months, averaging close to 18 hours a day and writing over 30,000 lines of code. It was my transformation from an amateur to a professional programmer, and stands till today as the first intellectual high point of my life. In the end I learned a lot, made some friends, but walked away with as little money as I walked in. By this time, coincidentally, I had also found object-orientation, and became an ardent supporter of it and a Java/C++ programmer.
My failed entrepreneurial experiments had, by around 2002, turned me off from the technology industry. As I was already in college, and as my interest in science had already been sparked by the few classes I did actually attend, I decided to venture into the unknown world of the cell. This was a somewhat unlikely choice, for it was physics that had always been my scientific calling–I had even won my high school’s physics award! Physics always seemed, and continues to, impinge on and inform the fundamental philosophical questions that had kept me up at night long ago. But a number of considerations kept me away from it. First and foremost was my professional ambition to be successful at whatever it is that I do. I knew then, even in my early 20s, that I was too old to begin studying physics. Second, my philosophical interests had taken on a much more formal orientation, grounded in mathematical logic and set theory. It seemed increasingly unlikely that the philosophical would be reconciled with the scientific in my professional career. And thus, having avoided biology throughout high-school, I dived head first, and discovered that from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved. Biological cells seemed like grand cities, with breathing factories and intricate machinery. If physics inspired humility, biology seemed to inspire wonder.
From the very beginning, my interest in biology was that of unification. I was intrigued by the notion of doing for biology what quantum field theory and the Standard Model had done for particle physics. I had also taken a very programmatic view of the cell, seeing genomes as nothing more than digital programs written in base-4 instead of base-2. This perspective would prove to be both an aid and a hindrance, a combination of fresh ideas and old baggage, different but not altogether dissimilar from the situation that faces physicists entering the biological world.
As my undergraduate studies came to a close, I had still not made a full commitment to biology. The leap seemed too great, and too sudden. Only two years prior I had known virtually nothing about biology, and here I was contemplating committing years of my life to its study. It was at this time that I, acting upon a tip from my girlfriend, discovered the work of Stephen Wolfram on simple programs and emergent complexity. Intrigued, I applied to be a part of the inaugural class of a summer school on the subject. I was accepted, spent a month thinking about problems in complexity and biology, and was soon thereafter hired to be a part of Wolfram Research‘s Special Projects skunkworks group. There is much that I can write about my 18-month tenure there. I was hired to work on computational biology functionality, but out of my own volition, decided to burrow deep into the guts of the Mathematica language and work on foundational problems in language design and the synthesis of object-orientation with the functional paradigm. This experience proved to be the second intellectual high point of my life, and perhaps in its almost mathematical purity, my finest. Most importantly, it was during this time, almost 20 years after having written my first line of code, that I found my native language: Mathematica. In it, and in the functional paradigm more broadly, I would find a home to my programmatic tongue. While I had long been a competent, maybe even a good, programmer, it was in the Mathematica language that I would become able to express my ideas most thoughtfully and artfully.
In the end however, it was the biological problem, not the linguistic one, that I wanted to solve. What I needed was a push over the edge, and I found it in a talk I attended by Eric Davidson of Caltech. Upon the urging of my girlfriend, who had already begun her graduate studies at Stanford, I applied to grad school and joined her there the following year.
Graduate school is a difficult period for many, even soul-crushing for some. While I did struggle occasionally, I, once again, got lucky. I found a home in the lab of Harley McAdams, who provided a gentle nudge when I needed it, but who otherwise left me to pursue the questions that most appealed to me. Since undergrad and my earliest thinking about the biological unification problem, I had been drawn to structure. Particularly protein structure, but structure more broadly, as a sort of lingua franca for the cell. My initial years of thinking seriously about biological problems were difficult. Computer programs, while apt loose analogies, break down rather quickly when faced with the dizzying and mystifying nature of biological processes. I don’t yet, and I don’t think anyone else does, have a good conceptual framework for thinking about biological systems. But it seemed to me then, as it does now, that the best place to start looking is structure. And thus I dedicated the bulk of my graduate work to multiple facets of the structure question. It was also during this time that I finally developed the mathematical maturity that I had so long needed but was deficient in. I would grow to find certain subjects deeply intuitive, like probability and group theory, but continue to struggle with others, particularly analysis. Even when I did understand a concept, I would not understand it in its native mathematical language, but by mapping it to a concept I am already familiar with, for example by treating a real number as an algorithmic procedure. In the end it is unlikely that I will ever have the working mathematical proficiency of a computer scientist, physicist, or mathematician. But, this increased mathematical maturity led me to discover machine learning, arguably the intellectual love affair of my adult life. And so, at Stanford, I would learn to be a structural biologist and a machine learning researcher, a period that I consider to be my life’s third intellectual high point.
Today I remain committed to solving the problems I stumbled upon almost 10 years ago. These problems currently occupy the bulk of my professional time. In due time, perhaps in old age, I hope to one day come back to the earlier questions that first animated my spirit. Regardless of the outcome, I am incredibly privileged to be able to dedicate my life’s work to the study of the natural world. It is a world that is at once comprehensible and deeply mysterious, and it is the shared privilege of all humankind that we exist in such a wondrous place.