This week we're continuing with profiles of some of the 2010 Davidson Fellows!
Today we welcome Kyle Loh to Gifted Exchange. He is 17 years old, and is in graduate school at Stanford (he graduated from Rutgers University at age 16). His project involved looking at reprogramming human and mouse skin cells into stem cells -- a feat which would make them more useful while avoiding other ethical issues. You can read more about him here.
Gifted Exchange: How did you come up with your project?
Loh: At age 13 as I was entering Rutgers University, I read the landmark Cell paper by Shinya Yamanaka that reported that skin cells could be converted into stem cells that are identical to embryonic stem cells. I thought that this was a fantastic feat! (Cells are notoriously difficult to change lineages; you obviously wouldn't want your blood cells turning into bone cells! Furthermore, you could get therapeutically useful stem cells from skin -- I thought it was amazing). This paper permanently changed my research direction and informed all my subsequent research projects. I was so excited about this that I couldn't think of working on anything else.
I wrote a research proposal on a similar avenue of inquiry and looked for stem cell labs across New Jersey who would take me in. Many professors were deterred due to my age, and I only finally found one mentor -- Dr. Dale Woodbury of the UMDNJ Robert Wood Johnson Medical School -- who would take me in and host my research project on this stem cell conversion work. After one year of working with Dr. Woodbury's laboratory and benefiting from his extraordinary mentorship, I was accepted into the Harvard Stem Cell Institute's Summer Internship Program. Again, none of the Harvard professors would take me because of my age (14 years old), but finally, I was accepted by Dr. Doug Melton; Director of the Harvard Stem Cell Institute. When I heard that a nearby Harvard lab (Dr. Kevin Eggan's) was working on this stem cell conversion work, but was succeeding in doing these conversions with chemicals, I decided to take an entire year off from my undergraduate education to work in Dr. Eggan's laboratory on this project of converting skin cells into stem cells with chemicals. This work was the basis of my Fellows' project.
Thus, my research direction was informed through a mixture of serendipity and also some lucky insights I happened to have (when I was carrying out the technical work for my project). I find in research that there is much luck involved. However, being careful and aware, trying to think of things from an unconventional angle, and having good mentors and a detailed knowledge of the literature can really help things out.
Gifted Exchange: As you were doing your project, were their skills or things you learned earlier that turned out to be important?
Loh: I was amazed and humbled to hear that some of the other Fellows literally did their research projects in their bedrooms. I had to rely on the resources and hardware of two laboratories at the Harvard Stem Cell Institute (Dr. Kevin Eggan's and Dr. Lee Rubin's) in order to prosecute my project. To be candid, given the nature of stem cell research, there wasn't a chance to learn any technical "skills" beforehand in academic studies that I could use in my project. I had to learn everything myself from the ground up, such as the technique of high-throughput chemical screening whereby 10,000 or more drugs are tested for their ability to perform a certain function. Where my lab colleagues relied on other people to do this chemical screening for them, I got my hands dirty and did it myself.
In my present research project at the Genome Institute of Singapore, I've learned that for at least for stem cell research, a detailed knowledge of the literature can make a tremendous difference. Anyone technically proficient can do the same amount of work as anyone else; rather what differentiates projects is the research direction and the long-term strategic aims, which can be heavily informed by detailed understanding of the literature. Probably the most "important" aspects of my project were dictated by assiduous and broad reading of the literature. Another "important" aspect is seeking out collaborations. As a team leader of several graduate students, I had the opportunity to independently seek out a collaboration with another laboratory that has accelerated my project by half a year. Thus, I feel that the "skills" that are important in research must either by learned on-the-spot (for techniques) or else they're rooted in reading the literature and seeking out friendships/opportunities/collaborations.
Gifted Exchange: What was the most fun part of your project?
Loh: When you make a novel finding, for a few moments, you're the only person on Earth that knows something! Imagine that! Such experiences have been at the root of my forays into stem cell research. Research otherwise is extremely competitive: at centers such as Harvard, lab politics are cutthroat and the demand for publications is enormous. Nevertheless, I am a firm believer that one's own pursuit of their chosen research topic should be "fun" and that what should be driving them forward. There is no use doing something like research if it isn't "fun", especially given how time-intensive it is! Good science cannot be done by people who aren't excited!
Gifted Exchange: Where do you see yourself in 20 years?
Loh; Not sure! I've got a long way to go until then. Hopefully, by that time, I'll be a faculty member somewhere and continuing my "obsession" with stem cell research, which excited me since age 13 and my beginnings at New Jersey. Nevertheless, I hope that there are two things I can be engaged in besides research activities. Firstly is the provision of opportunities to younger students. My entire research career is due a single mentor, Dr. Woodbury, who took me in at age 13 and fostered me until I became who I am today. I hope to provide such opportunities to other students. If so, it'd be very worthwhile! I am presently mentoring several students (undergraduates, high school students) as part of my research team alongside graduate students.
A second priority is to become involved with the "higher" echelons of research -- the decisions at the level of policy, law, and ethics that subsequently translate into the policies that govern research as a whole. As scientists we cannot be self-absorbed with our own work to the extent that we overlook that we need to clearly represent science to policymakers and the public such that future policies do not needlessly restrict us due to public misconceptions. To this end, I have written a white paper to Singapore policy-makers about the bioethics of human-mouse hybrids and am in the midst of a series of correspondences in a Singaporean newspaper that are challenging such hybrids.