Anna Quinlan’s Adventures in Computer Science and Diabetes Research

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This is the eleventh article in Bears Doing Big Things, a weekly column celebrating the stories of notable M-A alumni. Read last week’s article here.

At M-A, Anna Quinlan ’19 especially enjoyed AP Computer Science with Ms. Donaldson and AP Biology with Mr. Roisen. She said, “I took computer science on a whim. I didn’t really think I would be into it. Sometimes in technical spaces it can be intimidating if you don’t have the background, but Ms. Donaldson did a great job of reminding us, ‘You understand this, guys, they’re just using fancy words!’” Little did seventeen-year-old Quinlan know that this introductory course would lay the foundation for her collegiate studies, career, and lifelong passion for computer science.

Quinlan became interested in the biology of diabetes in high school through a friend with the condition. She prototyped and built an insulin pump, and contributed code to several apps to help diabetes patients track and manage their condition. She said, “I didn’t really know what I was doing. I googled a lot. Now that I have more knowledge in the field, there are some things I’d do differently in those designs, but it was a great experience—I got to connect coding to tangibly helping other people.”

Now, Quinlan is finishing up her degree in Computer Science in Stanford’s biocomputation track. Her favorite classes so far are Computer Organization and Systems, Leukocyte Migration, and Living on the Edge, a course where students drive along the California coast with a geology professor. Quinlan explained, “We’d get off the bus and the professor would point and be like, ‘Yo, look at this geology thing!’ It was fun to see the stuff we were learning about in context. We camped out on a farm one night and I met cool new friends who are still close friends to this day.”

Quinlan’s advice to current M-A students: “I think that ‘I’m not the best at this, but I’m going to do it anyway because I enjoy it’ is a great attitude. I remember that when I first started doing biology stuff, I felt like everyone else was doing so well on tests and I was struggling, but that was also around the time I began to really start loving the subject. You don’t have to immediately be the best person to be successful at something. It’s okay to spend time getting better.

Also, focus on doing the things that you are excited about. I think with college admissions, people can get stressed out and feel like they are being boxed into doing certain things, but when you’re actually in college, there isn’t that same pressure. I’ve seen a lot of people at Stanford who have been working towards getting here for their entire lives and now they’re like, ‘What am I supposed to do now?’ 

My overall advice is that everything will be fine. If you told me what I would be doing now five years ago I would have been like, ‘What are you talking about?’ I think being open to trying new things, following your curiosity, and doing what you enjoy can take you very far.”

When Quinlan couldn’t find a cycle tracking app designed for menstrual cup users, she designed her own, which has been used by people in more than 60 countries. She can code in more than ten different programming languages: Python, Swift, Java, C, C++, C#, Objective-C, SQL, R, Bash, and Xamarin. Over the past few summers, Quinlan has worked for both Microsoft and Apple. This summer, she worked on the Apple Health app team.

On her favorite books, Quinlan said, “I read a ton—it’s funny, I read for fun more than a lot of my friends who are in English and the humanities. I think it’s partially because my homework isn’t reading. I loved Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End, or anything by Atul Gawande (Better: A Surgeon’s Notes on Performance, and Complications). I also enjoyed Why We Sleep, Packing for Mars: The Curious Science of Life in the Void, and Into Thin Air.”


Disclaimer: Bears Doing Big Things is not meant to be a list ranking the most accomplished or famous M-A graduates on Earth. It is a collection of people with a wide range of expertise, opinions, and stages of life who were kindly willing to share their stories. All have wisdom, entertaining anecdotes, and book recommendations to share. There are 45,000+ additional accomplished M-A alums out there, so keep an eye out for them!

Caroline Pecore is a senior in her first year of journalism. Her column, "Bears Doing Big Things," runs every Monday. She enjoys meeting new people through journalism and writing about the M-A community. Outside of school, she spends most of her time rowing for Norcal Crew and also enjoys reading, drawing, and exploring the outdoors.

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