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Musings on Mentorship

December 05, 2019
by Ryan Chow, Jonathan Park and Matthew Dong

Dr. Sidi Chen is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Genetics and the Systems Biology Institute, and also a member of the Yale Cancer Center and the Yale Stem Cell Center. In 2019, the Chen lab – which includes three MD-PhD students – published several high-profile papers in journals including Nature Immunology, Cell, and Nature Biotechnology (see citations below). We asked three of his MD-PhD students to share their thoughts on what they enjoy about being in the Chen Lab.

Jonathan Park (5th year MD-PhD student): "If you spend a lot of time in our lab, you will notice that one of Sidi’s catchphrases is “be creative!” He often pushes for new ideas and out of the box thinking, no matter how outlandish they may seem. This forms a cultural emphasis on innovation which, combined with the unusually collaborative nature of our group, has made the lab an exciting place to work. Whether through brainstorming ideas or lending each other’s expertise, every member has something to contribute.

Moreover, I believe that our research has real translational impact. The question “Is this clinically relevant?” underlies many of the questions in lab meetings. My projects, like many in the lab, has centered on advancing cancer immunology and immunotherapy. I feel that I am truly working at the interface of the bench and the bedside, which is important to me as an MD-PhD student."

Ryan Chow (4th year MD-PhD student): "Since Sidi’s lab is relatively young, we operate somewhat like a start-up: different members are brought in with their own unique expertise, and we work together to tackle problems quickly from different angles. I think the key to our system is that we’ve cultivated a lab environment where people are not afraid to fail. The vast majority of our projects don’t pan out at first; whereas in other labs, these setbacks and struggles may become crippling, we believe that if you know something is going to work before doing it, then perhaps you should try to think bigger.

When I’m brainstorming new projects, what inevitably happens is that I come to recognize the limits of my own knowledge, and I realize that I should turn to my colleagues for their thoughts. For instance, during lunch I often ask Matt Dong and Jon Park what they think about a particular project, since they both have more immunology expertise than me. These discussions are incredibly helpful for refining my ideas and for realizing potential challenges that I may have overlooked. As Sidi is eager to support new ideas, it’s often possible for us to get a pilot experiment going in just a few weeks. If we’re lucky, that pilot can quickly evolve into a complete project; if not, then no worries, we can just move on to the next idea."

Matt Dong (5th year MD-PhD student): "Being the first employee of the Sidi Chen Lab, I have had the unique opportunity to see how an early investigator is able to start a successful lab, help foster a productive and collaborative lab culture, and initiate a major research arm of the lab. It is in the last category where Sidi gave me the most leeway, but also offered the most mentorship. He equips the members of his lab modern-day genetic and multi-omics tools to address immediate clinical needs. His science is only second to his character. His receptiveness to new ideas and his unyielding optimism help cultivate a comfortable environment to explore new questions. I believe that these qualities have enabled Sidi to meet success so early on.

Through my MSTP training thus far, I have learned that our clinical training provides us with unique insights into the limitations of the clinic that can direct our science. But in order to be successful, we need to be trained by strong mentors, like Sidi, who provide strong experimental framework as well as continual support."

[Sidi Chen's] receptiveness to new ideas and his unyielding optimism help cultivate a comfortable environment to explore new questions.

Matt Dong


Wang G, Chow RD, Bai Z, Zhu L, Errami Y, Dai X, Dong MB, Ye L, Zhang X, Renauer PA, Park JJ, Shen L, Ye H, Fuchs CS, Chen S. Multiplexed activation of endogenous genes by CRISPRa elicits potent antitumor immunity. Nat Immunol. 2019;20(11):1494-505. Epub 2019/10/14. doi: 10.1038/s41590-019-0500-4. PubMed PMID: 31611701; PMCID: PMC6858551

Dong MB, Wang G, Chow RD, Ye L, Zhu L, Dai X, Park JJ, Kim HR, Errami Y, Guzman CD, Ye L, Park JJ, Dong MB, Yang Q, Chow RD, Peng L, Du Y, Guo J, Dai X, Wang G, Errami Y, Chen S. In vivo CRISPR screening in CD8 T cells with AAV-Sleeping Beauty hybrid vectors identifies membrane targets for improving immunotherapy for glioblastoma. Nat Biotechnol. 2019. Epub 2019/09/25. doi: 10.1038/s41587-019-0246-4. PubMed PMID: 31548728.

Dong MB, Wang G, Chow RD, Ye L, Zhu L, Dai X, Park JJ, Kim HR, Errami Y, Guzman CD, Zhou X, Chen KY, Renauer PA, Du Y, Shen J, Lam SZ, Zhou JJ, Lannin DR, Herbst RS, Chen S. Systematic Immunotherapy Target Discovery Using Genome-Scale In Vivo CRISPR Screens in CD8 T Cells. Cell. 2019;178(5):1189-204 e23. Epub 2019/08/24. doi: 10.1016/j.cell.2019.07.044. PubMed PMID: 31442407; PMCID: PMC6719679.

Submitted by Reiko Fitzsimonds on December 06, 2019