Over the past two decades only a handful of M.D./Ph.D. students have completed the program in six years (the average is seven or eight). Among them is Nicole McNeer, M.D. ’14, Ph.D. ’14, whose career path straddles pediatrics and biomedical engineering. While she was fast-tracking through the program, she also earned three prestigious awards—for the med school graduate who best exemplifies the qualities of a pediatrician; the most outstanding dissertation by an M.D./Ph.D. student; and exceptional achievement in engineering research.
“As far back as I can remember,” says McNeer, “I thought that research and science were the coolest things in the world.” Her parents, chemists who came from Bangladesh and now work at Kodak and 3M in Minnesota, encouraged her with chemistry and electronics kits.
In January, McNeer garnered yet another honor. Forbes magazine included the 27 year old in its 2015 list of 30 under 30 in Science & Healthcare, which recognizes young people with a record of achievement and promise. Soon after, McNeer spoke with Yale Medicine.
When did you become interested in biomedical engineering?
I had always been a math and physics nerd. When I was thinking about doing an M.D./Ph.D. program, getting the clinical and research experience, I wanted to try and use my math and physics background. Biomedical engineering seemed like a good fit.
What was the subject of your thesis?
My research is focused on site-specific gene editing. That’s like taking a little piece of whiteout to the instruction manual, getting rid of the one- or two-letter typo that you have, and replacing it with the correct letters. There are several ways of doing this. I have been using synthetic small molecules that are similar to DNA. Instead of the regular sugar type of backbone that DNA has, they have a protein type of backbone that binds to the DNA in the cell. It makes it look like there’s a lesion in the cell, which the cell wants to fix. The cell brings in its own correction machinery, and if you include a template with the sequence that you want, in some cases you’re lucky and the cell uses your sequence as the correct one. Most of my thesis focused on delivery of these small molecules using nanoparticles. The second part of my thesis was about applying this technology to editing the gene responsible for cystic fibrosis. It’s caused by a single gene defect, so it was a very amenable target for this type of technology.
How did you choose pediatrics?
I knew I would do something that had to do with hematology, and I had done some rotations in adult hematology and oncology, which was interesting. I really enjoyed my rotations in pediatric hematology and oncology. I liked working with families and I liked how pediatric oncology is set up from a research standpoint.
You’re also known around campus as a member of the Yale Belly Dance Society.
My sister, who went to Harvard with me, convinced me to take an introductory course. I’d never done any other type of dance, but I found the class really fun. When I came to Yale, I tried out for the Yale Belly Dance Society, practiced very hard, and got in. I have taken a break from the group because of the demands of internship. Dancing, dressing up, and seeing friends have all gone by the wayside.
How are you juggling your internship and research?
For the past few months my research has been mostly writing and paper revisions—stuff I can do wherever I am. I’ll have my computer with me, and when I have a moment I’ll work on writing, or editing, or data analysis. There are a number of people who are continuing various aspects of the projects I’d been working on. It has been really cool to see the projects branch out in different directions.
How did you meet your husband, James McNeer?
It was my freshman year at Harvard, and he was a sophomore. He was looking on Facebook for a girl who was interested in video games. We played StarCraft against each other; then we started dating. Since college he’s been working at a small hedge fund.
We got married five years ago. We had his pastor from Massachusetts and one of my uncles, who was training as an imam, preside over the wedding, with readings from the Koran and the Bible. I think the audience was confused about when we were married because there were 10 different times when they said “you are married” in multiple languages.How did you get nominated for 30 under 30?
A friend who was in Forbes’ 30 under 30 last year nominated me, and Forbes asked for information about me, from me and other people. I am not sure who all the other people were. It was a little bit embarrassing. This type of subjective award is about 5 percent what you do and 95 percent luck and who you know and having someone nominate you. Within Yale there are a lot of people who are equally qualified, but it was an honor to be lucky enough to be picked for this prize.
What are your career goals?
My ideal job would be as a pediatric physician/scientist at an academic institution; to have my own lab; and also my own clinical practice, most likely in pediatric hematology and oncology.
Watch a short film about Nicole McNeer at youtube.com/YaleMedicine