This week, I had the opportunity to interview my Principal Investigator, Dr. Chay Kuo. He went through a very unique path which eventually led him to become a successful medical scientist in the Department of Cell Biology at Duke University. The more I learned about Dr. Kuo’s academic career and his passion for science, the more I was fascinated by his marvelous journey.
Dr. Kuo was born in Taiwan and moved to California at the age of 10. During high school, everyone thought he was going to be a mathematician because he was great at Math and studied for Math Olympiads. After high school, he went to MIT where he majored in Architecture (Yes you didn’t read it wrong, Architecture). MIT had a very liberal grading policy for first-year students where classes were graded either Pass or No Credit. This means that if a student fails a class, it wouldn’t even show up on his/her transcript. Because of this lenient grading policy, Dr. Kuo took the most hardcore and interesting science classes during his first year. He stated that his first year in MIT is why he became a scientist because he didn’t worry about his grades, instead, he devoted his time to learn about subjects he was curious about. He said “In life, what you learn in school can only take you so far. Everything else after that, is what you do with that knowledge. In school exams, I could answer any questions if I had access to the textbooks. Right now I can look up any information I want, but I still don’t know the answers to many of my questions. So, you should worry more about learning than your grades in order to become a true scientist.” He took architecture classes for the same reason and decided to become an architect major afterwards.
After graduating from MIT at 1993, Dr. Kuo worked as a lab technician for several months in the Department of Cardiology at Harvard. Then, he went to the School of Medicine at the University of Chicago and completed his MD-PhD there. He actually wanted to go to an architecture graduate school. But his father told him that he would cover his cost of attendance only if he went to a medical school. Dr. Kuo realized that he hated medical school but he liked to do research as he explained: “There are two different ways to solve problems. One is the medical type of time-dependent probability problems where you have a time constraint and you need to figure out three most probable diagnoses with 90% confidence. This requires a broad but shallow knowledge in a wide range of areas. Every test in medical school is based on this understanding. The other type of problems is scientific type of time-independent problems where you need to discover the least probable answers. If you try the most obvious solutions, you are going to be wrong. Because someone else tried that path and failed. You need to find a novel way; you need to look at the 10% nobody has researched before. I sucked at the first type of questions but I was really good at the second type. So I did a PhD in Dr. Jeffrey Leiden’s lab and enjoyed every second of it. Then I chose being a medical scientist over being a physician.” He finished his MD-PhD in 2002 and started his post-doctoral fellowship at University of California, San Francisco.
Having completed his post-doctoral fellowship, Dr. Kuo continued his research projects in Duke where he focused on neurogenesis and neural stem cells. When I asked about his goals as a scientist, he told: “I have a two dimensional diagram of where I want to be as a scientist. The x-axis has ‘significant’ on one end and ‘obscure’ on the other. The y-axis has ‘the red ocean’ and ‘the blue ocean’ on its ends. The red ocean is where all the boats, i.e. scientists, are. The blue ocean is where there are no boats. If you want to find funds easily, you should be at the significant end of the red ocean. Because that’s where everybody works and it’s more likely to discover something significant in an area if a lot of people are contributing collectively. However, breakthroughs do not occur in red oceans. They occur in the significant end of the blue ocean. They need to be not only significant but also something totally novel. I like to be in the blue ocean, I’m an adventurous scientist. I want to take an area that’s in the blue ocean where no one works on, and turn it into a red ocean area by making great discoveries and drawing attention of other people. When asked about where the new breakthrough will occur in medicine, David Baltimore, a Nobel Laurate, answers ’If I knew, it would not be a breakthrough.’ Personally, I found his metaphor very interesting and I plan to use his diagram throughout my career.
Lastly, I asked Dr. Kuo whether he had any advice for undergraduate students who want to become medical scientists. He replied: “You need to figure out what type of problems you are good at solving and whether you actually want to do research. To know that, you need to expose yourself to basic science labs and see your capabilities and feasibility of your goals. Also, don’t worry about your grades to an extent that will prevent you from pursuing your true academic interest. In the long term, you will see the benefits.”
Overall. This interview had profound effects on how I view science and research. I quite enjoyed Dr. Kuo’s inspiring story and great advice for students like us who want to have an academic career in medical field. I hope I could be as adventurous as he is when I conduct my own research projects.