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Lisa McFerrin '05

Alumni Leader Spotlight

Lisa McFerrin, '05

Worldwide Lead, Genomics, Amazon Web Services

I started in the field of math and computer science and always wanted to apply problem solving capabilities to something impactful. A summer internship introduced me to bioinformatics and I never looked back. After getting my Ph.D., I moved to Seattle for a postdoc at Fred Hutch doing cancer research, then took a position building a data visualization and analysis platform for translational research. The purpose was to get  tools and data in the hands of the people asking the questions in order to accelerate science and improve patient care. That is still my goal at Amazon Web Services (AWS), where I currently lead genomic initiatives that facilitate development and access to data, tools, and platforms for research, collaboration, and clinical decision support. 

I grew up in Virginia, but fell in love with the Pacific Northwest for its mountains, water, soccer and biotech. I still play in a rec soccer league, go to the Sounders games, and backpack as often as I can. 

How Virginia Tech equipped me for the 'real world'...
Without the advisors and clubs, I never would have been exposed to the various internships and career paths in applied math. The coursework provided the training, and the mentorship gave the necessary guidance for me to pursue a Ph.D. that launched my career in bioinformatics and cancer research. Linear algebra has proven fundamental in identifying patterns of biomarker enrichment among patient populations.

Best part of being a Virginia Tech alum...
I get to explain what a Hokie is and have an excuse to gobble.

Best advice I've gotten....
Know what you know, know what you don't know, and be okay with the difference. Translation: you are never going to know everything, so don't pretend you do. Figure out what you do want to know and own it.

A key habit, practice, or skill, that's important for success in my industry...
Read. There are endless publications, books, and tutorials of the latest innovative technology or biological discovery. In order to stay current, set up news feeds and join communities to help guide your continued learning.

This excites me the most about the future of my industry...
The intersection and application of technology and biology is just getting started. The increasing speed, scale, and precision of new tools/methods has the potential to democratize access to information, fuel scientific discoveries, and impact the health and wellness of entire populations.

Biggest misconception about my job or industry..
Bioinformatics is the intersection of biology, math/statistics, and computer science. Each one of those is hard, so bioinformatics must be impossible. False. Learning anything foreign to you may be hard at first, but there are numerous courses and out of the box tools available today to get you started asking (and answering) some really interesting questions.

Fondest Virginia Tech memory or tradition...
Singing (okay, screaming) at the football games #keyplay #stickitin

Words of encouragement to a current Virginia Tech student...
It's okay to not know what you want to do with your degree yet. My path didn't become clear until my senior year and I had to change some classes 2 weeks into the semester. Get involved to see what is out there and take a random class for the fun of it. Memories from an acting class still make me smile.

A cause I'm most passionate about...
Cancer research. Cancer is often regarded as a fatal disease of mutations, but where and when they occur and how our bodies respond create a myriad of paths for progression, treatment and response. Advances in precision medicine including genetic sequencing and immunotherapy are making promising steps towards cancer becoming a chronic rather than deadly disease.

The last time I ventured out of my comfort zone...
I almost summited Mt. Rainier. In trying to get to the top of the 14,420 ft mountain, I trained for months carrying 40 pounds of rice in a backpack up hiking trails. With the help of a guide service and lots of winter weather gear, we traversed glaciers, crossed a crevasse on a ladder, and walked in 45 degree pitch of ice in crampons. Timing and trail conditions kept us from reaching the top, but I left proud and satisfied after pushing my mental and physical limits. The breathtaking views helped.

My no-fail, go-for-it motivational song..
Bohemian Rhapsody. Best song of all time... Beezlebub has a devil set aside for me, ... for meeee, for meeeeeeeeee!

Top of my bucket list..
Summit all the volcanoes in the Cascade Mt. Range

Media Contact:
Lindsey Haugh (540) 231-6959