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From Prisons to Proteins: The Unexpected Journey of a UX Researcher
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From Prisons to Proteins: The Unexpected Journey of a UX Researcher

From Prisons to Proteins: The Unexpected Journey of a UX Researcher

June 25, 2024

·

Jelle Prins

On a crisp Zurich morning, Sytske Besemer walks briskly through the city's winding streets, her phone pressed to her ear. On the other end of the line, I'm strolling along Amsterdam's canals, engaged in our daily ritual of discussing work while getting our steps in. Today, however, is different. We're delving deep into Sytske's fascinating career journey, from her roots in criminology to her current role as a User Experience (UX) researcher at Cradle.


The Seeds of Curiosity: Criminology and Psychology

Sytske's path to the world of user experience research and biotech is anything but conventional. It begins in the Netherlands, where a young Sytske, driven by an intense curiosity about human behavior, chose to study criminology. "I was really, really curious about why some people commit crime," she explains, her voice filled with a mix of curiosity and conviction. "Why do some people break the rules, and why do others not?"

"Why do some people break the rules, and why do others not?"

This burning question led her to pursue studies in psychology and, eventually, criminology. "I actually started with psychology," Sytske recalls, "but I wanted to differentiate myself from other psychology graduates." The structure of the criminology degree, which required a first year in either law or social sciences, appealed to her desire for a unique academic path.

Sytske's academic journey took her from the Netherlands to the prestigious halls of Cambridge University in the UK, where she delved deeper into the complexities of crime and punishment. Her studies prompted her to question fundamental aspects of criminology: Who decides what rules are? How do societal changes impact what's considered criminal?

"If you look back only a few decades, homosexuality was criminal," Sytske notes, highlighting the evolving nature of criminal justice. "It's almost a philosophical question about what we define as crime and who ends up in the criminal justice system."

This early foundation in understanding human behavior and societal structures would prove invaluable in Sytske's future career, providing her with a unique perspective on user behaviors and motivations in the tech world.


From Theory to Practice: Working in Prisons

Sytske's curiosity led her to work in youth prisons in the Netherlands and later teach statistics to inmates at San Quentin prison in California. At San Quentin, she also collaborated with a program called "Guiding Rage into Power," which utilized mindfulness and emotional intelligence to help prisoners process their past experiences.

"There are so many older men in San Quentin," Sytske reflects. "Many are there because of the three-strikes law. Their third strike could be a bicycle theft, and then they're locked up for life." These experiences shaped her understanding of criminal behavior and the complex factors that contribute to it.

"Many people who are involved in the criminal justice system have been really unlucky with where they were born, how they grew up, and what happened in their life," Sytske explains. Her time in prisons taught her the importance of empathy and understanding context – skills that would prove invaluable in her future career.

The stark realities of the prison system also reinforced Sytske's belief in the power of education and personal growth. She saw firsthand how programs like "Guiding Rage into Power" could help inmates develop emotional intelligence and coping skills, potentially breaking the cycle of reoffending. This experience would later influence her approach to user research, emphasizing the importance of understanding users' backgrounds and contexts to create more effective and empathetic solutions.


The Turning Point: From Academia to Tech

As we continue our virtual walk, Sytske recounts her transition from academia to the tech industry. After completing her Ph.D. and pursuing her post-doc, she found herself disillusioned with the academic world's slow pace of change. "I felt like, what's the point of me doing this research and doing the same trick over and over again, and nothing is ever going to happen?" she says.

"I felt like, what's the point of me doing this research and doing the same trick over and over again, and nothing is ever going to happen?"

"I didn't even know what a PhD was when I started university," Sytske admits, highlighting her unconventional path. "I come from a family where I was one of the first to go to university." This background gave her a unique perspective, always pushing her to consider the practical applications of her work.

The gap between academic research and real-world impact had become too wide for her to ignore. Despite being offered a tenure track position, Sytske yearned to apply her research to solve real-world problems.


Uber: A New World of Research

Fate intervened in the form of a job posting at Uber for a criminal justice scientist. Sytske, with her unique background, was the perfect fit. She joined the company in 2017, just as Uber was embroiled in a series of public relations crises.

"I joined on the day after the taxi strikes in New York. Everyone was hashtag #DeleteUber. I joined in an exciting time," Sytske recalls with a hint of irony. Her role focused on Trust and Safety Research, specifically studying the impact of allowing drivers with certain criminal records to work for the platform.

The move to Silicon Valley was a culture shock. "I had no idea how to do research in industry," Sytske admits. "There were tons of meetings, and I could spend my time in meetings." But she also found the collaborative environment invigorating. "There were so many smart people around me... it was mind-blowing, how amazing it was to have these people right next to me."

Her time at Uber, however, was not without challenges. The company's tumultuous culture and frequent reorganizations took their toll. Sytske recounts an eye-opening experience with the work culture: "The insurance team, those people, they would just work until 4am and that was just like, for me, I don't even know how you can do that. I would die," she laughs, shaking her head in disbelief.

The contrast between different team cultures was stark. "The safety team had a very different culture from the insurance people," Sytske observes. She also struggled with the company's emphasis on visibility expectations, which often conflicted with her desire for work-life balance.

Despite these challenges, Sytske's work at Uber was groundbreaking. Her research on drivers with criminal records helped inform company policy, potentially opening up economic opportunities for individuals who might otherwise struggle to find employment. This experience taught her the power of data-driven decision making and the impact that thoughtful research could have on people's lives.


Life in the Bay Area: An Unexpected Journey

What was initially planned as a 1-2 year stay in the Bay Area turned into a 6.5-year adventure. "We loved the nature there," Sytske reminisces. "We loved climbing, hiking, skiing, cycling... the climate, without the fires, is just amazing."

The ease of building social circles in the transient Bay Area surprised and delighted Sytske. "It was really easy to build up a social circle," she says. "Every other place that we've lived afterwards, it has not been that easy." However, the constant flux of people coming and going also meant that maintaining long-term friendships could be challenging.

This experience of adapting to a new culture and building relationships in a fast-paced, transient environment would later prove valuable in Sytske's work at Cradle, where she would need to quickly understand and adapt to the needs of diverse user groups.


A New Chapter: From Uber to Facebook

Sytske's journey took an unexpected turn when, upon returning from maternity leave, she found her role at Uber had been eliminated. This crossroads prompted a momentous decision: to return to Europe with her family and start a new chapter in their lives.

Sytske then considered an offer from Facebook (now Meta). Initially reluctant, she approached the interview process as practice. "I thought, I don't want to work for Facebook. I don't want to live in London. But you know, these interview processes, they're good exercise because they're difficult," she explains.

"I thought, I don't want to work for Facebook. I don't want to live in London. But you know, these interview processes, they're good exercise because they're difficult."

To her surprise, Sytske found herself drawn to the integrity teams at Facebook. It was here that she took on her first official UX research role, focusing on workplace integrity and account issues. During the pandemic, she oversaw multi-country studies and was involved in developing customer support systems.

This experience at Facebook broadened Sytske's understanding of UX research, exposing her to global-scale projects and the challenges of conducting research during a pandemic. It also reinforced her belief in the importance of integrity and ethics in tech – themes that would continue to shape her approach to UX research in her future roles.


The Nature of UX Research: A Multifaceted Discipline

As Sytske delves into the nature of UX research, she draws an interesting parallel: "It's kind of like describing what a doctor does, because you can be a GP or you can be a surgeon, and it's very different work that you do."

She emphasizes that UX research is about far more than designing pretty interfaces. "We're all focused on understanding the user and making sure that what we build, and how we build it, is in a way that is accessible and usable for a user," Sytske explains.

"We're all focused on understanding the user and making sure that what we build, and how we build it, is in a way that is accessible and usable for a user."

She outlines three main categories of UX research:

  1. Usability Research: This involves evaluating designs and user understanding. "We look at whether users can navigate our interface effectively, understand the information presented, and accomplish their tasks without frustration," Sytske explains. At Cradle, this might involve observing biologists as they interact with the protein design interface, noting any points of confusion or inefficiency.

  2. Tactical Research: This category informs upcoming projects. "Before we start designing a new feature, we conduct research to understand user needs, workflows, and pain points," says Sytske. We want to truly understand the problems our users face, that our software could help solve. For instance, before developing a new visualization tool for protein structures, Sytske might interview biologists about their current visualization practices and challenges.

  3. Strategic Research: This looks at future roadmaps and potential user needs. "We look at what additional features or capabilities we should offer to be even more useful for our existing customers, i.e. be able to be useful for a wider range of projects, or how we could expand to different industries," Sytske notes. 


Cradle: A New Frontier in Biotech

As our conversation continues, we arrive at the heart of Sytske's current work: her role at Cradle, a biotech startup using AI to design better proteins. Sytske discovered the job opening on LinkedIn and was immediately attracted to the company's mission and the interdisciplinary nature of the team.

"The interview process felt like dating," Sytske laughs. "It felt like the six of us were figuring out if we wanted to work with each other." The company's emphasis on work-life balance, evident even in the job posting, was a significant draw for Sytske.

Joining as one of the first employees, Sytske found herself wearing multiple hats – UX researcher, informal mentor, culture champion, and more. "I love being able to wear these different hats," she enthuses. "I love working with such a small team and not having all the bureaucracy around it, and really having an impact immediately."

"I love working with such a small team and not having all the bureaucracy around it, and really having an impact immediately."


Bridging Disciplines: UX Research at Cradle

At Cradle, Sytske's role is crucial in bridging the gap between highly specialized disciplines. "We have two very specialized disciplines," she explains. "We have artificial intelligence experts and we have biologists." Her job is to translate between these worlds, ensuring that the AI tools Cradle develops are accessible and useful to biologists.

This interdisciplinary approach is not without its challenges. Sytske recounts an illuminating anecdote about the importance of clear communication: "Eli [co-founder of Cradle] said we can just present the Spearman rank correlation in a presentation, because all biologists have taken statistics in undergrad. It wouldn’t need further explanation. And I was like..." She trails off, shaking her head. Through her research, Sytske discovered that many biologists were unfamiliar with this statistical concept, highlighting the need for careful translation between disciplines.

Sytske's collaboration with software engineer Adam exemplifies the impact of her work. "Adam would often join me in UX research sessions," she explains. "He could immediately implement changes based on user feedback." This direct line between user needs and development has allowed Cradle to iterate quickly and effectively, creating tools that truly serve their users' needs.


Shaping Cradle's Culture

As Cradle grows – recently expanding from about 15-20 people to 40 in just six months – Sytske plays a crucial role in shaping the company culture. She's involved in organizing quarterly off-sites, defining company values, and facilitating conversations between different teams.

Cradle's culture encourages people to also have a life outside work, which is reflected in the diverse set of hobbies people have, and the amount of parents with young children on the team. Cradle also attracts mission-driven employees. "We're all in it together," Sytske says. "We all want the same thing." This shared mission extends to their relationships with customers, where transparency about product capabilities is paramount.

The company's growth has brought new challenges. "As we've grown, we've had to be more intentional about maintaining our culture," Sytske notes. She's been instrumental in developing onboarding processes that immerse new hires in Cradle's values and collaborative approach.

"User experience is not just the user experience of our users, but to me, I care as much about the user experience of my colleagues," Sytske reflects. "I really feel like we can only make a good company and a good product if the people can do their best work and are thriving."

"User experience is not just the user experience of our users, but to me, I care as much about the user experience of my colleagues."


The Impact of UX Research in Biotech

To further educate her colleagues about the principles of good (product) design, Sytske is involved in educating colleagues about UX principles, balancing intuition with specific research, and informing future roadmaps and strategic decisions.

"One of my personal goals was, and still is, to make everyone at Cradle a little bit of a UX researcher," she explains, “to make sure we always approach problems from the perspective of our users”. 

"One of my personal goals was, and still is, to make everyone at Cradle a little bit of a UX researcher."

This holistic approach to UX has led to some unexpected outcomes. For instance, Cradle's practice of sending custom-made socks as thank-you gifts to research participants has been a hit with customers, fostering goodwill and strengthening relationships.

The impact of UX research in biotech extends far beyond interface design. By ensuring that complex AI tools are accessible and intuitive for biologists, Sytske's work helps accelerate the pace of scientific discovery. "If we can make these tools easier to use, we can potentially speed up the development of new medicines, more sustainable materials, or better crops," she explains.


The Future of Biotech and UX Research

As we discuss the future of biotech and UX research, Sytske's eyes light up with excitement. "We're just at the beginning of understanding how AI can transform biology," she says. "As these tools become more powerful, the role of UX research will become even more critical."

She envisions a future where UX researchers in biotech will need to grapple with complex ethical questions. "As we develop tools that can potentially create new life forms or modify existing ones, we'll need to ensure that the user interfaces guide users towards responsible use," she explains.

Sytske also sees potential for UX research methodologies to evolve. "We might need to develop new ways to test and validate interfaces for systems that are dealing with unprecedented levels of complexity," she muses. "It's an exciting challenge."


Reflections on an Unconventional Journey

As we wrap up our conversation, it's clear that Sytske's unique background – from studying criminals to decoding the needs of biologists and AI researchers – has given her a rare perspective on human behavior and technology.

"I love startup life, which I didn't know before, because I've never been in an environment like that," Sytske admits. She appreciates the opportunity to wear multiple hats and the direct impact of her work.

"I love startup life, which I didn't know before, because I've never been in an environment like that."

Sytske's journey from criminology to biotech may seem unlikely, but it's precisely this diverse experience that makes her an invaluable asset in the fast-paced world of startups. Her story serves as a testament to the power of curiosity, empathy, and the relentless pursuit of knowledge in the face of complex challenges.

"My background in criminology taught me to look beyond surface behaviors and understand the underlying motivations and contexts," Sytske reflects. "This has been incredibly valuable in UX research, where understanding the 'why' behind user actions is crucial."

In a world where the boundaries between technology and biology are increasingly blurred, voices like Sytske's are crucial in ensuring that powerful technologies serve human needs in the most effective and ethical ways possible. As Cradle continues to push the boundaries of what's possible in protein design, Sytske's contributions will undoubtedly play a vital role in making groundbreaking technology not just powerful, but accessible and meaningful to those who will benefit from it most.

As our virtual walk comes to an end, I'm struck by the winding path that led Sytske to her current role. From the halls of academia to the prisons of California, from the bustling offices of Silicon Valley to the cutting-edge labs of a biotech startup, her journey is a powerful reminder that we are not stuck in a single career path, but that we can constantly take on new challenges. Sytske, just like many others at Cradle, joined Cradle without any biology or AI experience, but was able to quickly learn the essentials. 

As we conclude our conversation, Sytske shares a final thought: "I never could have predicted where my career would take me when I first started studying criminology. But looking back, I can see how each experience has shaped my approach to UX research and my ability to bridge different worlds. In the end, whether you're studying criminal behavior or designing protein modeling interfaces, it all comes down to understanding people and creating systems that work for them."

From Prisons to Proteins: The Unexpected Journey of a UX Researcher

June 25, 2024

·

Jelle Prins

On a crisp Zurich morning, Sytske Besemer walks briskly through the city's winding streets, her phone pressed to her ear. On the other end of the line, I'm strolling along Amsterdam's canals, engaged in our daily ritual of discussing work while getting our steps in. Today, however, is different. We're delving deep into Sytske's fascinating career journey, from her roots in criminology to her current role as a User Experience (UX) researcher at Cradle.


The Seeds of Curiosity: Criminology and Psychology

Sytske's path to the world of user experience research and biotech is anything but conventional. It begins in the Netherlands, where a young Sytske, driven by an intense curiosity about human behavior, chose to study criminology. "I was really, really curious about why some people commit crime," she explains, her voice filled with a mix of curiosity and conviction. "Why do some people break the rules, and why do others not?"

"Why do some people break the rules, and why do others not?"

This burning question led her to pursue studies in psychology and, eventually, criminology. "I actually started with psychology," Sytske recalls, "but I wanted to differentiate myself from other psychology graduates." The structure of the criminology degree, which required a first year in either law or social sciences, appealed to her desire for a unique academic path.

Sytske's academic journey took her from the Netherlands to the prestigious halls of Cambridge University in the UK, where she delved deeper into the complexities of crime and punishment. Her studies prompted her to question fundamental aspects of criminology: Who decides what rules are? How do societal changes impact what's considered criminal?

"If you look back only a few decades, homosexuality was criminal," Sytske notes, highlighting the evolving nature of criminal justice. "It's almost a philosophical question about what we define as crime and who ends up in the criminal justice system."

This early foundation in understanding human behavior and societal structures would prove invaluable in Sytske's future career, providing her with a unique perspective on user behaviors and motivations in the tech world.


From Theory to Practice: Working in Prisons

Sytske's curiosity led her to work in youth prisons in the Netherlands and later teach statistics to inmates at San Quentin prison in California. At San Quentin, she also collaborated with a program called "Guiding Rage into Power," which utilized mindfulness and emotional intelligence to help prisoners process their past experiences.

"There are so many older men in San Quentin," Sytske reflects. "Many are there because of the three-strikes law. Their third strike could be a bicycle theft, and then they're locked up for life." These experiences shaped her understanding of criminal behavior and the complex factors that contribute to it.

"Many people who are involved in the criminal justice system have been really unlucky with where they were born, how they grew up, and what happened in their life," Sytske explains. Her time in prisons taught her the importance of empathy and understanding context – skills that would prove invaluable in her future career.

The stark realities of the prison system also reinforced Sytske's belief in the power of education and personal growth. She saw firsthand how programs like "Guiding Rage into Power" could help inmates develop emotional intelligence and coping skills, potentially breaking the cycle of reoffending. This experience would later influence her approach to user research, emphasizing the importance of understanding users' backgrounds and contexts to create more effective and empathetic solutions.


The Turning Point: From Academia to Tech

As we continue our virtual walk, Sytske recounts her transition from academia to the tech industry. After completing her Ph.D. and pursuing her post-doc, she found herself disillusioned with the academic world's slow pace of change. "I felt like, what's the point of me doing this research and doing the same trick over and over again, and nothing is ever going to happen?" she says.

"I felt like, what's the point of me doing this research and doing the same trick over and over again, and nothing is ever going to happen?"

"I didn't even know what a PhD was when I started university," Sytske admits, highlighting her unconventional path. "I come from a family where I was one of the first to go to university." This background gave her a unique perspective, always pushing her to consider the practical applications of her work.

The gap between academic research and real-world impact had become too wide for her to ignore. Despite being offered a tenure track position, Sytske yearned to apply her research to solve real-world problems.


Uber: A New World of Research

Fate intervened in the form of a job posting at Uber for a criminal justice scientist. Sytske, with her unique background, was the perfect fit. She joined the company in 2017, just as Uber was embroiled in a series of public relations crises.

"I joined on the day after the taxi strikes in New York. Everyone was hashtag #DeleteUber. I joined in an exciting time," Sytske recalls with a hint of irony. Her role focused on Trust and Safety Research, specifically studying the impact of allowing drivers with certain criminal records to work for the platform.

The move to Silicon Valley was a culture shock. "I had no idea how to do research in industry," Sytske admits. "There were tons of meetings, and I could spend my time in meetings." But she also found the collaborative environment invigorating. "There were so many smart people around me... it was mind-blowing, how amazing it was to have these people right next to me."

Her time at Uber, however, was not without challenges. The company's tumultuous culture and frequent reorganizations took their toll. Sytske recounts an eye-opening experience with the work culture: "The insurance team, those people, they would just work until 4am and that was just like, for me, I don't even know how you can do that. I would die," she laughs, shaking her head in disbelief.

The contrast between different team cultures was stark. "The safety team had a very different culture from the insurance people," Sytske observes. She also struggled with the company's emphasis on visibility expectations, which often conflicted with her desire for work-life balance.

Despite these challenges, Sytske's work at Uber was groundbreaking. Her research on drivers with criminal records helped inform company policy, potentially opening up economic opportunities for individuals who might otherwise struggle to find employment. This experience taught her the power of data-driven decision making and the impact that thoughtful research could have on people's lives.


Life in the Bay Area: An Unexpected Journey

What was initially planned as a 1-2 year stay in the Bay Area turned into a 6.5-year adventure. "We loved the nature there," Sytske reminisces. "We loved climbing, hiking, skiing, cycling... the climate, without the fires, is just amazing."

The ease of building social circles in the transient Bay Area surprised and delighted Sytske. "It was really easy to build up a social circle," she says. "Every other place that we've lived afterwards, it has not been that easy." However, the constant flux of people coming and going also meant that maintaining long-term friendships could be challenging.

This experience of adapting to a new culture and building relationships in a fast-paced, transient environment would later prove valuable in Sytske's work at Cradle, where she would need to quickly understand and adapt to the needs of diverse user groups.


A New Chapter: From Uber to Facebook

Sytske's journey took an unexpected turn when, upon returning from maternity leave, she found her role at Uber had been eliminated. This crossroads prompted a momentous decision: to return to Europe with her family and start a new chapter in their lives.

Sytske then considered an offer from Facebook (now Meta). Initially reluctant, she approached the interview process as practice. "I thought, I don't want to work for Facebook. I don't want to live in London. But you know, these interview processes, they're good exercise because they're difficult," she explains.

"I thought, I don't want to work for Facebook. I don't want to live in London. But you know, these interview processes, they're good exercise because they're difficult."

To her surprise, Sytske found herself drawn to the integrity teams at Facebook. It was here that she took on her first official UX research role, focusing on workplace integrity and account issues. During the pandemic, she oversaw multi-country studies and was involved in developing customer support systems.

This experience at Facebook broadened Sytske's understanding of UX research, exposing her to global-scale projects and the challenges of conducting research during a pandemic. It also reinforced her belief in the importance of integrity and ethics in tech – themes that would continue to shape her approach to UX research in her future roles.


The Nature of UX Research: A Multifaceted Discipline

As Sytske delves into the nature of UX research, she draws an interesting parallel: "It's kind of like describing what a doctor does, because you can be a GP or you can be a surgeon, and it's very different work that you do."

She emphasizes that UX research is about far more than designing pretty interfaces. "We're all focused on understanding the user and making sure that what we build, and how we build it, is in a way that is accessible and usable for a user," Sytske explains.

"We're all focused on understanding the user and making sure that what we build, and how we build it, is in a way that is accessible and usable for a user."

She outlines three main categories of UX research:

  1. Usability Research: This involves evaluating designs and user understanding. "We look at whether users can navigate our interface effectively, understand the information presented, and accomplish their tasks without frustration," Sytske explains. At Cradle, this might involve observing biologists as they interact with the protein design interface, noting any points of confusion or inefficiency.

  2. Tactical Research: This category informs upcoming projects. "Before we start designing a new feature, we conduct research to understand user needs, workflows, and pain points," says Sytske. We want to truly understand the problems our users face, that our software could help solve. For instance, before developing a new visualization tool for protein structures, Sytske might interview biologists about their current visualization practices and challenges.

  3. Strategic Research: This looks at future roadmaps and potential user needs. "We look at what additional features or capabilities we should offer to be even more useful for our existing customers, i.e. be able to be useful for a wider range of projects, or how we could expand to different industries," Sytske notes. 


Cradle: A New Frontier in Biotech

As our conversation continues, we arrive at the heart of Sytske's current work: her role at Cradle, a biotech startup using AI to design better proteins. Sytske discovered the job opening on LinkedIn and was immediately attracted to the company's mission and the interdisciplinary nature of the team.

"The interview process felt like dating," Sytske laughs. "It felt like the six of us were figuring out if we wanted to work with each other." The company's emphasis on work-life balance, evident even in the job posting, was a significant draw for Sytske.

Joining as one of the first employees, Sytske found herself wearing multiple hats – UX researcher, informal mentor, culture champion, and more. "I love being able to wear these different hats," she enthuses. "I love working with such a small team and not having all the bureaucracy around it, and really having an impact immediately."

"I love working with such a small team and not having all the bureaucracy around it, and really having an impact immediately."


Bridging Disciplines: UX Research at Cradle

At Cradle, Sytske's role is crucial in bridging the gap between highly specialized disciplines. "We have two very specialized disciplines," she explains. "We have artificial intelligence experts and we have biologists." Her job is to translate between these worlds, ensuring that the AI tools Cradle develops are accessible and useful to biologists.

This interdisciplinary approach is not without its challenges. Sytske recounts an illuminating anecdote about the importance of clear communication: "Eli [co-founder of Cradle] said we can just present the Spearman rank correlation in a presentation, because all biologists have taken statistics in undergrad. It wouldn’t need further explanation. And I was like..." She trails off, shaking her head. Through her research, Sytske discovered that many biologists were unfamiliar with this statistical concept, highlighting the need for careful translation between disciplines.

Sytske's collaboration with software engineer Adam exemplifies the impact of her work. "Adam would often join me in UX research sessions," she explains. "He could immediately implement changes based on user feedback." This direct line between user needs and development has allowed Cradle to iterate quickly and effectively, creating tools that truly serve their users' needs.


Shaping Cradle's Culture

As Cradle grows – recently expanding from about 15-20 people to 40 in just six months – Sytske plays a crucial role in shaping the company culture. She's involved in organizing quarterly off-sites, defining company values, and facilitating conversations between different teams.

Cradle's culture encourages people to also have a life outside work, which is reflected in the diverse set of hobbies people have, and the amount of parents with young children on the team. Cradle also attracts mission-driven employees. "We're all in it together," Sytske says. "We all want the same thing." This shared mission extends to their relationships with customers, where transparency about product capabilities is paramount.

The company's growth has brought new challenges. "As we've grown, we've had to be more intentional about maintaining our culture," Sytske notes. She's been instrumental in developing onboarding processes that immerse new hires in Cradle's values and collaborative approach.

"User experience is not just the user experience of our users, but to me, I care as much about the user experience of my colleagues," Sytske reflects. "I really feel like we can only make a good company and a good product if the people can do their best work and are thriving."

"User experience is not just the user experience of our users, but to me, I care as much about the user experience of my colleagues."


The Impact of UX Research in Biotech

To further educate her colleagues about the principles of good (product) design, Sytske is involved in educating colleagues about UX principles, balancing intuition with specific research, and informing future roadmaps and strategic decisions.

"One of my personal goals was, and still is, to make everyone at Cradle a little bit of a UX researcher," she explains, “to make sure we always approach problems from the perspective of our users”. 

"One of my personal goals was, and still is, to make everyone at Cradle a little bit of a UX researcher."

This holistic approach to UX has led to some unexpected outcomes. For instance, Cradle's practice of sending custom-made socks as thank-you gifts to research participants has been a hit with customers, fostering goodwill and strengthening relationships.

The impact of UX research in biotech extends far beyond interface design. By ensuring that complex AI tools are accessible and intuitive for biologists, Sytske's work helps accelerate the pace of scientific discovery. "If we can make these tools easier to use, we can potentially speed up the development of new medicines, more sustainable materials, or better crops," she explains.


The Future of Biotech and UX Research

As we discuss the future of biotech and UX research, Sytske's eyes light up with excitement. "We're just at the beginning of understanding how AI can transform biology," she says. "As these tools become more powerful, the role of UX research will become even more critical."

She envisions a future where UX researchers in biotech will need to grapple with complex ethical questions. "As we develop tools that can potentially create new life forms or modify existing ones, we'll need to ensure that the user interfaces guide users towards responsible use," she explains.

Sytske also sees potential for UX research methodologies to evolve. "We might need to develop new ways to test and validate interfaces for systems that are dealing with unprecedented levels of complexity," she muses. "It's an exciting challenge."


Reflections on an Unconventional Journey

As we wrap up our conversation, it's clear that Sytske's unique background – from studying criminals to decoding the needs of biologists and AI researchers – has given her a rare perspective on human behavior and technology.

"I love startup life, which I didn't know before, because I've never been in an environment like that," Sytske admits. She appreciates the opportunity to wear multiple hats and the direct impact of her work.

"I love startup life, which I didn't know before, because I've never been in an environment like that."

Sytske's journey from criminology to biotech may seem unlikely, but it's precisely this diverse experience that makes her an invaluable asset in the fast-paced world of startups. Her story serves as a testament to the power of curiosity, empathy, and the relentless pursuit of knowledge in the face of complex challenges.

"My background in criminology taught me to look beyond surface behaviors and understand the underlying motivations and contexts," Sytske reflects. "This has been incredibly valuable in UX research, where understanding the 'why' behind user actions is crucial."

In a world where the boundaries between technology and biology are increasingly blurred, voices like Sytske's are crucial in ensuring that powerful technologies serve human needs in the most effective and ethical ways possible. As Cradle continues to push the boundaries of what's possible in protein design, Sytske's contributions will undoubtedly play a vital role in making groundbreaking technology not just powerful, but accessible and meaningful to those who will benefit from it most.

As our virtual walk comes to an end, I'm struck by the winding path that led Sytske to her current role. From the halls of academia to the prisons of California, from the bustling offices of Silicon Valley to the cutting-edge labs of a biotech startup, her journey is a powerful reminder that we are not stuck in a single career path, but that we can constantly take on new challenges. Sytske, just like many others at Cradle, joined Cradle without any biology or AI experience, but was able to quickly learn the essentials. 

As we conclude our conversation, Sytske shares a final thought: "I never could have predicted where my career would take me when I first started studying criminology. But looking back, I can see how each experience has shaped my approach to UX research and my ability to bridge different worlds. In the end, whether you're studying criminal behavior or designing protein modeling interfaces, it all comes down to understanding people and creating systems that work for them."

From Prisons to Proteins: The Unexpected Journey of a UX Researcher

June 25, 2024

·

Jelle Prins

On a crisp Zurich morning, Sytske Besemer walks briskly through the city's winding streets, her phone pressed to her ear. On the other end of the line, I'm strolling along Amsterdam's canals, engaged in our daily ritual of discussing work while getting our steps in. Today, however, is different. We're delving deep into Sytske's fascinating career journey, from her roots in criminology to her current role as a User Experience (UX) researcher at Cradle.


The Seeds of Curiosity: Criminology and Psychology

Sytske's path to the world of user experience research and biotech is anything but conventional. It begins in the Netherlands, where a young Sytske, driven by an intense curiosity about human behavior, chose to study criminology. "I was really, really curious about why some people commit crime," she explains, her voice filled with a mix of curiosity and conviction. "Why do some people break the rules, and why do others not?"

"Why do some people break the rules, and why do others not?"

This burning question led her to pursue studies in psychology and, eventually, criminology. "I actually started with psychology," Sytske recalls, "but I wanted to differentiate myself from other psychology graduates." The structure of the criminology degree, which required a first year in either law or social sciences, appealed to her desire for a unique academic path.

Sytske's academic journey took her from the Netherlands to the prestigious halls of Cambridge University in the UK, where she delved deeper into the complexities of crime and punishment. Her studies prompted her to question fundamental aspects of criminology: Who decides what rules are? How do societal changes impact what's considered criminal?

"If you look back only a few decades, homosexuality was criminal," Sytske notes, highlighting the evolving nature of criminal justice. "It's almost a philosophical question about what we define as crime and who ends up in the criminal justice system."

This early foundation in understanding human behavior and societal structures would prove invaluable in Sytske's future career, providing her with a unique perspective on user behaviors and motivations in the tech world.


From Theory to Practice: Working in Prisons

Sytske's curiosity led her to work in youth prisons in the Netherlands and later teach statistics to inmates at San Quentin prison in California. At San Quentin, she also collaborated with a program called "Guiding Rage into Power," which utilized mindfulness and emotional intelligence to help prisoners process their past experiences.

"There are so many older men in San Quentin," Sytske reflects. "Many are there because of the three-strikes law. Their third strike could be a bicycle theft, and then they're locked up for life." These experiences shaped her understanding of criminal behavior and the complex factors that contribute to it.

"Many people who are involved in the criminal justice system have been really unlucky with where they were born, how they grew up, and what happened in their life," Sytske explains. Her time in prisons taught her the importance of empathy and understanding context – skills that would prove invaluable in her future career.

The stark realities of the prison system also reinforced Sytske's belief in the power of education and personal growth. She saw firsthand how programs like "Guiding Rage into Power" could help inmates develop emotional intelligence and coping skills, potentially breaking the cycle of reoffending. This experience would later influence her approach to user research, emphasizing the importance of understanding users' backgrounds and contexts to create more effective and empathetic solutions.


The Turning Point: From Academia to Tech

As we continue our virtual walk, Sytske recounts her transition from academia to the tech industry. After completing her Ph.D. and pursuing her post-doc, she found herself disillusioned with the academic world's slow pace of change. "I felt like, what's the point of me doing this research and doing the same trick over and over again, and nothing is ever going to happen?" she says.

"I felt like, what's the point of me doing this research and doing the same trick over and over again, and nothing is ever going to happen?"

"I didn't even know what a PhD was when I started university," Sytske admits, highlighting her unconventional path. "I come from a family where I was one of the first to go to university." This background gave her a unique perspective, always pushing her to consider the practical applications of her work.

The gap between academic research and real-world impact had become too wide for her to ignore. Despite being offered a tenure track position, Sytske yearned to apply her research to solve real-world problems.


Uber: A New World of Research

Fate intervened in the form of a job posting at Uber for a criminal justice scientist. Sytske, with her unique background, was the perfect fit. She joined the company in 2017, just as Uber was embroiled in a series of public relations crises.

"I joined on the day after the taxi strikes in New York. Everyone was hashtag #DeleteUber. I joined in an exciting time," Sytske recalls with a hint of irony. Her role focused on Trust and Safety Research, specifically studying the impact of allowing drivers with certain criminal records to work for the platform.

The move to Silicon Valley was a culture shock. "I had no idea how to do research in industry," Sytske admits. "There were tons of meetings, and I could spend my time in meetings." But she also found the collaborative environment invigorating. "There were so many smart people around me... it was mind-blowing, how amazing it was to have these people right next to me."

Her time at Uber, however, was not without challenges. The company's tumultuous culture and frequent reorganizations took their toll. Sytske recounts an eye-opening experience with the work culture: "The insurance team, those people, they would just work until 4am and that was just like, for me, I don't even know how you can do that. I would die," she laughs, shaking her head in disbelief.

The contrast between different team cultures was stark. "The safety team had a very different culture from the insurance people," Sytske observes. She also struggled with the company's emphasis on visibility expectations, which often conflicted with her desire for work-life balance.

Despite these challenges, Sytske's work at Uber was groundbreaking. Her research on drivers with criminal records helped inform company policy, potentially opening up economic opportunities for individuals who might otherwise struggle to find employment. This experience taught her the power of data-driven decision making and the impact that thoughtful research could have on people's lives.


Life in the Bay Area: An Unexpected Journey

What was initially planned as a 1-2 year stay in the Bay Area turned into a 6.5-year adventure. "We loved the nature there," Sytske reminisces. "We loved climbing, hiking, skiing, cycling... the climate, without the fires, is just amazing."

The ease of building social circles in the transient Bay Area surprised and delighted Sytske. "It was really easy to build up a social circle," she says. "Every other place that we've lived afterwards, it has not been that easy." However, the constant flux of people coming and going also meant that maintaining long-term friendships could be challenging.

This experience of adapting to a new culture and building relationships in a fast-paced, transient environment would later prove valuable in Sytske's work at Cradle, where she would need to quickly understand and adapt to the needs of diverse user groups.


A New Chapter: From Uber to Facebook

Sytske's journey took an unexpected turn when, upon returning from maternity leave, she found her role at Uber had been eliminated. This crossroads prompted a momentous decision: to return to Europe with her family and start a new chapter in their lives.

Sytske then considered an offer from Facebook (now Meta). Initially reluctant, she approached the interview process as practice. "I thought, I don't want to work for Facebook. I don't want to live in London. But you know, these interview processes, they're good exercise because they're difficult," she explains.

"I thought, I don't want to work for Facebook. I don't want to live in London. But you know, these interview processes, they're good exercise because they're difficult."

To her surprise, Sytske found herself drawn to the integrity teams at Facebook. It was here that she took on her first official UX research role, focusing on workplace integrity and account issues. During the pandemic, she oversaw multi-country studies and was involved in developing customer support systems.

This experience at Facebook broadened Sytske's understanding of UX research, exposing her to global-scale projects and the challenges of conducting research during a pandemic. It also reinforced her belief in the importance of integrity and ethics in tech – themes that would continue to shape her approach to UX research in her future roles.


The Nature of UX Research: A Multifaceted Discipline

As Sytske delves into the nature of UX research, she draws an interesting parallel: "It's kind of like describing what a doctor does, because you can be a GP or you can be a surgeon, and it's very different work that you do."

She emphasizes that UX research is about far more than designing pretty interfaces. "We're all focused on understanding the user and making sure that what we build, and how we build it, is in a way that is accessible and usable for a user," Sytske explains.

"We're all focused on understanding the user and making sure that what we build, and how we build it, is in a way that is accessible and usable for a user."

She outlines three main categories of UX research:

  1. Usability Research: This involves evaluating designs and user understanding. "We look at whether users can navigate our interface effectively, understand the information presented, and accomplish their tasks without frustration," Sytske explains. At Cradle, this might involve observing biologists as they interact with the protein design interface, noting any points of confusion or inefficiency.

  2. Tactical Research: This category informs upcoming projects. "Before we start designing a new feature, we conduct research to understand user needs, workflows, and pain points," says Sytske. We want to truly understand the problems our users face, that our software could help solve. For instance, before developing a new visualization tool for protein structures, Sytske might interview biologists about their current visualization practices and challenges.

  3. Strategic Research: This looks at future roadmaps and potential user needs. "We look at what additional features or capabilities we should offer to be even more useful for our existing customers, i.e. be able to be useful for a wider range of projects, or how we could expand to different industries," Sytske notes. 


Cradle: A New Frontier in Biotech

As our conversation continues, we arrive at the heart of Sytske's current work: her role at Cradle, a biotech startup using AI to design better proteins. Sytske discovered the job opening on LinkedIn and was immediately attracted to the company's mission and the interdisciplinary nature of the team.

"The interview process felt like dating," Sytske laughs. "It felt like the six of us were figuring out if we wanted to work with each other." The company's emphasis on work-life balance, evident even in the job posting, was a significant draw for Sytske.

Joining as one of the first employees, Sytske found herself wearing multiple hats – UX researcher, informal mentor, culture champion, and more. "I love being able to wear these different hats," she enthuses. "I love working with such a small team and not having all the bureaucracy around it, and really having an impact immediately."

"I love working with such a small team and not having all the bureaucracy around it, and really having an impact immediately."


Bridging Disciplines: UX Research at Cradle

At Cradle, Sytske's role is crucial in bridging the gap between highly specialized disciplines. "We have two very specialized disciplines," she explains. "We have artificial intelligence experts and we have biologists." Her job is to translate between these worlds, ensuring that the AI tools Cradle develops are accessible and useful to biologists.

This interdisciplinary approach is not without its challenges. Sytske recounts an illuminating anecdote about the importance of clear communication: "Eli [co-founder of Cradle] said we can just present the Spearman rank correlation in a presentation, because all biologists have taken statistics in undergrad. It wouldn’t need further explanation. And I was like..." She trails off, shaking her head. Through her research, Sytske discovered that many biologists were unfamiliar with this statistical concept, highlighting the need for careful translation between disciplines.

Sytske's collaboration with software engineer Adam exemplifies the impact of her work. "Adam would often join me in UX research sessions," she explains. "He could immediately implement changes based on user feedback." This direct line between user needs and development has allowed Cradle to iterate quickly and effectively, creating tools that truly serve their users' needs.


Shaping Cradle's Culture

As Cradle grows – recently expanding from about 15-20 people to 40 in just six months – Sytske plays a crucial role in shaping the company culture. She's involved in organizing quarterly off-sites, defining company values, and facilitating conversations between different teams.

Cradle's culture encourages people to also have a life outside work, which is reflected in the diverse set of hobbies people have, and the amount of parents with young children on the team. Cradle also attracts mission-driven employees. "We're all in it together," Sytske says. "We all want the same thing." This shared mission extends to their relationships with customers, where transparency about product capabilities is paramount.

The company's growth has brought new challenges. "As we've grown, we've had to be more intentional about maintaining our culture," Sytske notes. She's been instrumental in developing onboarding processes that immerse new hires in Cradle's values and collaborative approach.

"User experience is not just the user experience of our users, but to me, I care as much about the user experience of my colleagues," Sytske reflects. "I really feel like we can only make a good company and a good product if the people can do their best work and are thriving."

"User experience is not just the user experience of our users, but to me, I care as much about the user experience of my colleagues."


The Impact of UX Research in Biotech

To further educate her colleagues about the principles of good (product) design, Sytske is involved in educating colleagues about UX principles, balancing intuition with specific research, and informing future roadmaps and strategic decisions.

"One of my personal goals was, and still is, to make everyone at Cradle a little bit of a UX researcher," she explains, “to make sure we always approach problems from the perspective of our users”. 

"One of my personal goals was, and still is, to make everyone at Cradle a little bit of a UX researcher."

This holistic approach to UX has led to some unexpected outcomes. For instance, Cradle's practice of sending custom-made socks as thank-you gifts to research participants has been a hit with customers, fostering goodwill and strengthening relationships.

The impact of UX research in biotech extends far beyond interface design. By ensuring that complex AI tools are accessible and intuitive for biologists, Sytske's work helps accelerate the pace of scientific discovery. "If we can make these tools easier to use, we can potentially speed up the development of new medicines, more sustainable materials, or better crops," she explains.


The Future of Biotech and UX Research

As we discuss the future of biotech and UX research, Sytske's eyes light up with excitement. "We're just at the beginning of understanding how AI can transform biology," she says. "As these tools become more powerful, the role of UX research will become even more critical."

She envisions a future where UX researchers in biotech will need to grapple with complex ethical questions. "As we develop tools that can potentially create new life forms or modify existing ones, we'll need to ensure that the user interfaces guide users towards responsible use," she explains.

Sytske also sees potential for UX research methodologies to evolve. "We might need to develop new ways to test and validate interfaces for systems that are dealing with unprecedented levels of complexity," she muses. "It's an exciting challenge."


Reflections on an Unconventional Journey

As we wrap up our conversation, it's clear that Sytske's unique background – from studying criminals to decoding the needs of biologists and AI researchers – has given her a rare perspective on human behavior and technology.

"I love startup life, which I didn't know before, because I've never been in an environment like that," Sytske admits. She appreciates the opportunity to wear multiple hats and the direct impact of her work.

"I love startup life, which I didn't know before, because I've never been in an environment like that."

Sytske's journey from criminology to biotech may seem unlikely, but it's precisely this diverse experience that makes her an invaluable asset in the fast-paced world of startups. Her story serves as a testament to the power of curiosity, empathy, and the relentless pursuit of knowledge in the face of complex challenges.

"My background in criminology taught me to look beyond surface behaviors and understand the underlying motivations and contexts," Sytske reflects. "This has been incredibly valuable in UX research, where understanding the 'why' behind user actions is crucial."

In a world where the boundaries between technology and biology are increasingly blurred, voices like Sytske's are crucial in ensuring that powerful technologies serve human needs in the most effective and ethical ways possible. As Cradle continues to push the boundaries of what's possible in protein design, Sytske's contributions will undoubtedly play a vital role in making groundbreaking technology not just powerful, but accessible and meaningful to those who will benefit from it most.

As our virtual walk comes to an end, I'm struck by the winding path that led Sytske to her current role. From the halls of academia to the prisons of California, from the bustling offices of Silicon Valley to the cutting-edge labs of a biotech startup, her journey is a powerful reminder that we are not stuck in a single career path, but that we can constantly take on new challenges. Sytske, just like many others at Cradle, joined Cradle without any biology or AI experience, but was able to quickly learn the essentials. 

As we conclude our conversation, Sytske shares a final thought: "I never could have predicted where my career would take me when I first started studying criminology. But looking back, I can see how each experience has shaped my approach to UX research and my ability to bridge different worlds. In the end, whether you're studying criminal behavior or designing protein modeling interfaces, it all comes down to understanding people and creating systems that work for them."

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