Bedroom Genomics Institute (BGI Shenzhen): David Cao Shares His Unique Virtual Internship Experience

Sep 1, 2020

Over the past summer, I have had the unique experience of interning remotely at BGI Shenzhen, a cutting-edge genomics company, from my comfortable (maybe too comfortable after 2 months) room in Montreal, Canada. The Beijing Genomics Institute was now the Bedroom Genomics Institute.

I have always been super fascinated by genome analysis, biotechnology, and working abroad (especially in China), so I was incredibly curious about how this remote experience would turn out. While I am saddened by the fact that I wouldn’t be able to be in Shenzhen this summer, I am excited to be working on cutting edge research technology.

The internship started with a WeChat call between my PI, Dr. Li, and myself. As someone who can somewhat speak Chinese, but can’t read or write, I really wanted to practice my Chinese. So we started our conversation in Chinese, but I soon realized that I was unable to talk in too much technicality because of my lack of Chinese vocabulary. We moved to English. We talked about Dr. Li’s current research which involves Medulloblastoma, the most common type of children’s brain cancer, and how whole genome sequence analysis can help towards identifying patterns of mutations that can help guide better treatments. I was very excited to get started!

The first few weeks involved a lot of literature research, to get familiarized with the disease and the current scientific progress. Some of the literature was in Chinese, so I had to ask my dad for language help, and use google translate in a “moderate” amount.

Next, I had to VPN and SSH into their supercomputers! This was a very technical process and I had to first activate a VPN, then use an SSH software to log onto their supercomputers. Supercomputers are incredible, because they provide the processing power to parse the 100+GB of genome data.

Over the next few weeks, I would live on the supercomputer terminal screen and run algorithms after algorithms on data sets. Different algorithms can take from a few minutes to a couple of days! One really needs to appreciate the computational power of such intensive processes!

Dr. Li also introduced me to two fellow Chinese interns who helped me a lot through the process. As someone who came in with a much more limited background, the other interns were super supportive and fun to work with.

There were however many challenges along the way. The time zone difference makes it so that I need to wait for 12hrs before I can ask questions, and believe me, I had a lot of questions and issues given how technical the job is. Thankfully, the other interns and Dr. Li were always able to efficiently answer my problems.

At the end, Dr. Li gave me a facility tour (see videos below), and I now, more than ever, want to visit the place and everyone in person! The remote experience gave me a taste of life at BGI, but I want the full experience now! 

Thanks to the HCF team for organizing a program under such difficult circumstances!



This blog post was written by David Cao, Harvard College Class of 2023, and participant of the Harvard China Student Internship Program in 2020.