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The Science of Being Fearless: Meet Siebel Scholar Deena Rennerfeldt

Siebel Scholar Deena Rennerfeldt (’18) didn’t exactly set out to analyze complex, multidimensional datasets to find new insights in biological behaviors. Rather, growing up in the Rocky Mountains and moving every few years kept her busy with more artistic pursuits. She fell in love with music at a very early age and grew up dreaming of studying music. She was also determined to be the first one in her family to go to college.
Separated by the Charles River Basin, Berklee College of Music and Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) almost face each other. Little did Deena know how these two institutions would play a role in her life. As a teenager, she was accepted into the Berklee College of Music and wanted to major in film scoring. She started her dream of higher education by attending a local state college first but found that trying to balance classes and save money wasn’t the easiest to do. Her dreams started and stopped multiple times. Waitressing graveyard shifts wasn’t enough and sometimes tuition couldn’t be paid.
Deena knew she couldn’t let this stop her determination to pursue her dreams.
After several years and multiple attempts to attend college, her hard work finally paid off once she had saved enough money and secured student loans.  By this time, another reality set in. She realized her dream of being a musician might not pay off in the way she wanted so she chose a more practical major – Chemical Engineering. While working at a tissue engineering research lab to make ends meet, she fell in love with bioengineering and decided to pursue a PhD. 
Twelve years after her initial acceptance into the Berklee College of Music, Deena started a new path towards becoming a bioinformatician across the Charles River at MIT (though she continues to compose music to this day). Her thesis work focused on understanding the extent, mechanisms, and mitigation of heterogeneity onset of stem cells used for a multitude of therapeutic applications. Much of that work included developing benchwork technologies as well as analytical pipelines, and during the course of her PhD she pivoted from being an experienced wet lab scientist to a purely computational one.
She recently defended her PhD thesis, and although she’s still processing the surreal experience, she found the time to answer a few questions for us.
Do you believe in New Year’s resolutions?
Yes! I’m very intentional about how I start the new year. It’s somewhat of an ordeal – I make the space to sit down and write out all that happened in the last year: my accomplishments, what lessons I learned, what I survived. I take my learnings and form them into concrete steps to approach the new year. My friends have recently started joining me in this and it’s great to go through the process with them.
What intentions did you set for 2019?
I always choose a phrase or few words to live by for the year. In 2019, I am determined to “Be Fearless”. Having recently graduated, I’ve built a community of people I’m close to and view as my family. I’m a little nervous as I’ll be leaving this safety net and moving to Palo Alto in February 2019. I know there are a lot of huge changes ahead, and while I have no idea what the end of 2019 will look like, I am determined to give myself the credit of what I’m capable of. I think fear consumes a lot of energy, and I want to operate on the tenet of living fearlessly. 
What was your biggest lesson or achievement in 2018?
I didn’t realize exactly how much I’m capable of, especially with regards to learning new things. I didn’t have a ton of confidence going into grad school but looking back now I know that I’m capable of pivoting my mindset to connect to really technical things like learning new programming languages. I’m currently applying to roles in the Bay Area and am fully confident in my ability to keep learning.
What books are on your list this year and why?
My friends have all recommended 'Bad Blood' by John Carreyrou. I’m also really into the Harvard Business Reviews Top 10 series, I’m about halfway through the "managing yourself" book. 
If you could write a message to the 2020 Siebel Scholars, what would it say?
Don’t limit yourself and keep a very open mind to what life could look like. Take the time to figure out what makes you happy, what drives you and gets you excited. You’d be surprised at how many barriers are in your head. Go with your passion and know that you are smart enough to figure out how to make your dreams work. 
Learn more about Deena’s work: More Than Virtual Fun and Games, LinkedIn, Diversity in Engineering and Research Gate.