Exploring Diverse Computational Challenges, from Cancer Research to Construction Technology

Max Leiserson

I first joined Mosaic in June 2019, but it wasn’t until this past summer that I decided to close my cancer genomics research lab at the University of Maryland and fully commit to Mosaic. This was a major pivot in direction for me: prior to joining Mosaic, I had zero experience in construction and nearly ten years of experience as a computational cancer biology researcher.

In this blog post, I wanted to share what led me to join Mosaic in the hope that it may be useful to someone considering a similar career transition, and as a starting point for several future blog posts on technology at Mosaic. But primarily what I hope to leave you with is my view on the opportunity that Mosaic represents.

Like many of my colleagues, my journey to Mosaic began when I met one of Mosaic’s co-founders, Sep Kamvar, in Boston in 2013. I quickly found that Sep and I shared a surprising number of foundational aspects of our work lives:

  • We’re both trained computer scientists who came to computer science through biology.
  • We both studied the PageRank algorithm as graduate students; for Sep, that work led to a startup that was acquired by Google, while for me, that work led to a new algorithm to help identify the genes driving human cancer.
  • We both saw an opportunity to have a positive impact in our work through entrepreneurship and academic research.

However, there was one major difference: Sep had actually started a successful company, while I’d only been part of multiple startups founded by fellow classmates.

When Sep approached me about Mosaic, I was excited about the chance to work closely with him and the opportunity to join a seed-stage startup. After ten years of academic research and several years as an educator, I had become further drawn to the idea of being closer to the impact of my work. I am a firm believer in the value of the academic model and the positive change it can affect, but the time it takes for that change to take root – whether it’s from new theories or advising students who become future leaders – can take many years, if not decades. Working at a venture-backed startup offered the chance for a much quicker feedback cycle.

It also gave me the chance to be closer to the results of my work, while still engaging with challenging computational problems. At Mosaic, I could reasonably expect to work with fellow engineers to develop software, work with our operations team to test and deploy that software in the field with our construction team, and then walk through a finished house or community at the end. While I believe that studying the As, Cs, Gs, and Ts of DNA is exciting and sustaining, it is a different sort of thrill than standing in a building your code helped to create. Further, I found that there was a broad diversity of computational challenges that represent part of the forefront of where I see computer science going in the coming years (more on that in a future blog post).

At this point, given my longtime interest in startups and the obvious opportunities at Mosaic, you might be thinking that it’s actually no surprise I joined a startup like Mosaic at the first chance I had. In actuality, I’m not sure I would’ve made the pivot without several other more recent developments in my life. Both these developments are connected to Mosaic’s mission to make places people love and make them widely available, which is ultimately the shortest answer to why I joined.

The first of these developments was personal. It is embarrassing to admit, but until December 2018 I did not realize that I could love a house! My wife, Robin, and I took nearly two years to buy our first house, and it is fair to say that I was a reluctant participant in that lengthy search. Thanks to Robin’s perseverance and deeper understanding of the importance a house can play in your life, we ended up finding a small, Tudor-disguised Cape Cod from 1938 that contributes to our feeling a unique part of and interconnected to our wider community. (And all that was before I spent a full-year unexpectedly working from home!) Mosaic’s mission is in part to give many more families the opportunity to enjoy and be fortified by that feeling.

The second, more recent development that led me to Mosaic came from my work in cancer genomics. When I was applying to graduate school, I decided to focus on labs that were performing computational cancer research. This decision was in part due to the friends and family I had seen suffer with cancer, and in part because I was inspired to work to improve public health more generally. My work over the last decade has given me a broader perspective on how to have a positive impact on public health. In particular, I see Mosaic’s mission as an opportunity to work upstream of my academic work, but in part towards the same goals. By changing the built environment, we may be able to improve our public health by reducing our reliance on fossil fuels, fostering more social connections within our communities, and so much more.

Now that I’ve shared my journey to Mosaic, my team and I are looking forward to sharing more about Mosaic’s technology in future blog posts. Until next time!

Construction as Code.

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