Meet MD/PhD student: Robin Oh
First year MD/PhD student, Robin Oh is planning to focus his research on the cooperating gene interactions that lead to cancer pathogenesis and metastasis. Writer Tabitha Chan speaks with him about what his first year in the Foundations Curriculum has been like so far and how the enriched CBLs have helped him to think like a physician scientist.
Year of study in MD Program: First year MD Program (1st Year MD/PhD)
Why did you apply to be part of the MD/PhD Program?
A lot of basic research focuses on understanding mechanisms and generating knowledge, but often forgets to tie it back to the clinical relevance. On the other hand, pure clinicians are more concerned about the identification of diseases and efficacy of treatment, rather than the underlying pathophysiology and mechanisms behind them. Although clinicians are the experts on how diseases manifest in humans, their observations and insights are not always brought into the laboratory. Because of this disconnect, we have become extremely efficient at curing a variety of diseases in mice, but still fail to translate the results to humans. Clinician scientists are at a unique position to bridge the gap between basic science and clinical medicine. From bedside to bench and bench to bedside – is the ability to bring clinical insights to form hypothesis in laboratories and bring what’s learned from research back to the clinic puts clinician scientists at the forefront of translational medicine and is what drove me to apply to the MD/PhD Program.
What has your first year in the MD Program been like? What are your thoughts on the Foundations Curriculum so far?
So far, it’s been a slew of good experiences. I’ve made a lot of close friends and joined many different student clubs and activities. This goes to show that there is so much more to medical school than only memorizing drugs and symptoms. What I like about the Foundations Curriculum is that it focuses on patient interaction, emphasizing social determinants of health, the importance of interdisciplinary teamwork and the inclusion of patients in decision-making, and cultural sensitivity. The curriculum has given me an appreciation for the complexities and compassion that characterizes our health care system.
Of course there have also been a few bumps along the way. Despite the enormous amount of feedback from us, the faculty has been amazingly receptive and they really care about what we think. I don’t think any curriculum is perfect and it’s not fair to compare one curriculum to another. What’s important is that we grow and learn in a way that reflects the values of the medical community.
MD/PhD students, together with MD Program students who self-identify as having a particular interest in the integration of basic and clinical science, participate in enriched case-based learning (CBL) modules. Enriched CBLs foster the dimensions of thinking that are characteristic of the physician scientist and its application in relation to patient care. How have the enriched CBLs helped you to prepare to think like a physician scientist?
The enriched CBLs challenge me to identify gaps in knowledge and resources in the hypothetical cases that I am given, as well as to design investigations to diminish those gaps. Every other week, I receive feedback and input about these cases from an expert physician scientist. It really provides perspective on how to drive research from a health care standpoint.
What will be the focus of your PhD be?
I am only in my first year, so I haven’t decided on a specific lab or project yet. But, the focus of my PhD will be on the cooperating gene interactions that cause cancer pathogenesis and metastasis.
During my undergraduate studies, I fell in love with research through studying the role of Atypical Cadherin Fat on growth regulation and planar cell polarity in Dr. Helen McNeill’s lab. The age-old questions in developmental biology are: How do cells know how big an organism should be, and how do they orient and organize themselves? For example, we never see a mouse the size of an elephant or an elephant the size of a mouse. Planar cell polarity refers to how cells know how to orient themselves amongst each other. Interestingly, the same genes involved in the processes that determine how our cells grow and orient themselves are often mutated in cancer.
Due to the way our genes are programmed, several mutations have to cooperate together in order to set off the chain reaction that leads to cancer. If we can map and identify the complex interactions of gene mutations in cancers and their microenvironment, we can develop specific inhibitors that can potentially halt the start or metastasis of cancers. Previously, these studies took years because of the time it took to develop mouse models with multiple mutations. Now, with the advent of new technologies, these studies can be done within weeks in mouse and human models that directly mimic the tumor environment. I think this is the perfect way to apply the basic research principles I have learned in a way that is directly relevant to health care.
What part of the MD/PhD Program are you most looking forward to?
I’m really looking forward to learning the newest innovative techniques and collaborating with world-class scientists on cutting-edge research. But most of all, I’m looking forward to the next eight years with my MD/PhD classmates – laughing and crying together about our successes and failures. It’ll be a long journey, but it’ll definitely be worth the experience.
What is one of the most valuable lessons you have learned during your time at U of T?
U of T has really taught me the value of community and to recognize my privilege within it. I’ve been granted so many opportunities here and have had the honour to learn from a diverse community of people. As a medical student, it is crucial to recognize these privileges and to break down barriers against diversity.
What is an obstacle you've had to overcome?
I went to a very prestigious high school in the US and it seemed like everyone was miles ahead of me. There were students in my class that were winners of gold medals in international competitions. One student was a researcher at the local university, while also being a varsity athlete and concert pianist. I felt really out of place. I had difficulty keeping up because I felt like I had to do brilliant things to be successful. At a certain point, I got burnt out and gave up trying. That’s when I realized, in the words of Albert Einstein, “If you judge a fish by the way it can climb a tree, it will think it’s stupid for the rest of its life.” The key to being successful isn’t defined by how many extracurricular activities you have or how many medals you receive. It’s really about finding the things you love to do most and diving into them with all you have.
What do you hope to accomplish after graduation?
Graduation is almost a decade away so it’s hard to say what I’ll be doing. Although my goal in research is to pave the way to more and more effective treatments for cancer, I also hope to become a professor one day and become a mentor to a new generation of scientists. I would not be where I am today if it were not for the wonderful professors who taught and guided me.
What's your passion? How do you maintain a healthy work/study life balance?
Aside from research, my passion is music. I love the way musicians can perform a piece of art so beautifully that it can bring people to tears. I am a director of a student-run U of T choir. I am also a composer, pianist, singer and trumpet player. It is mainly through my involvement in the musical community and, through my involvement with the U of T community as a whole that I maintain my work/study balance. It’s a great way to socialize, have fun, and play a little music too.