Ryan Chow is the 2022 winner of the Genetics Department’s Carolyn Slayman Prize, which recognizes excellence in scientific research and contribution to the scientific community. Chow’s thesis concentrated on creating a functional cancer genome using molecular tools such as CRISPR-Cas9 gene editing. He was inspired to make existing databases such as The Cancer Genome Atlas (TCGA), which is a database containing thousands of sequenced cancer genomes, usable in the clinic. He described the issue as paralleling the Mona Lisa. We all know and recognize the Mona Lisa, but there are fundamental questions about the nature of the art that aren’t able to answered by simply looking the painting. The functional component of Chow’s work means he can both look at the painting – in this case, document the genetic alterations in a patient’s tumor - and figure out how that impacts the tumor’s behavior and response to therapy.
The most important lesson Chow has learned during his PhD was not to be afraid of messing up. However, it wasn’t easy to realize this early on. Chow recalls the pressure he felt upon first beginning his PhD. “I think we’re all at Yale and a lot of us were probably really high-performing coming in and afraid of making mistakes or trying things that won’t work. I think that’s a mentality that my PhD really trained me out of.” The first couple years of his PhD were spent trying to get up to speed on the technology he wanted to use and persisting after repeated failed experiments. He recalls, “It was super frustrating. I think this is where having a supportive mentor group and lab colleagues that care about you are absolutely key.” To fellow students, Chow encourages them to keep going and that feeling lost is normal and part of the training. Learn to trust the process and build supportive networks, Chow says, and you’ll come out a stronger person and better scientist.
Much of the support Chow is grateful for was a result of his lab mates and his mentor, Associate Professor Sidi Chen, as well as the culture of the department. “The department overall in Genetics is extremely supportive. There were so many random PIs that I reached out to with questions or for advice and they all responded very quickly. I never had to struggle getting in contact with someone.” Chow recalls a particular experience while serving as a teaching assistant in a class taught by Genetics faculty member Valentina Greco. “A common point of criticism for presentations is that you were too quiet and that you need to speak more authoritatively. And Valentina pushed back on that, saying it just perpetuates the notion that the ideal scientist is this strong, white male who is very loud and confident. She made a real effort to prioritize all voices in science,” something Chow was thankful for and works to promote today.
Chow has since returned to his MD training with a keen interest in oncology and is currently preparing for his future. He plans to apply to a physician scientist track within Internal Medicine and would like to continue performing research alongside seeing patients. “Ultimately, I feel like it’s not two jobs, it really is one thing. I think it’s your responsibility as a clinician to think about finding new things to help your patients, especially in oncology, because what we have is not enough right now.”