Skip to Main Content
Contribute Try STAT+ Today

Next week, STAT will unveil its fifth class of Wunderkinds, a group of doctors and researchers in the final steps of their training who promise to shake up the world of the life sciences and who are forging new paths toward pioneering discoveries.

To mark the occasion, we decided to check in with a handful of Wunderkinds from our first cohort, named in 2017. We caught up on their achievements since then, the challenges they’ve faced as they moved from postdoctoral fellowships to managing their own labs or leading a new company, and how they’ve adapted from running experiments to overseeing scientific teams.

There was a striking overlap in the lessons they’ve picked up in the five years since: They’ve learned to prioritize certain projects instead of taking on everything that seems interesting or is being asked of them, and all share a sense of pride in seeing their own trainees’ scientific successes.

advertisement

Excerpts from the conversations are below, lightly edited for clarity.

Hsiao-Tuan Chao

Chao is now an assistant professor at Baylor College of Medicine, the same institution where she was a postdoctoral fellow when she was named a Wunderkind in 2017. The questions that drive her research have stayed the same as well: studying the genetic basis for how brain circuits form during development, and what goes awry in neurological disorders.

advertisement

The challenges

The biggest challenge has been coming to terms that I’m not the bench scientist anymore and can’t be at the bench 100% of the time. But I get to enjoy now building a team and seeing all my trainees do the cool experiments and seeing their results. You’re not the primary scientist anymore — you have to run the team.

It’s a lot of emails. I spend probably a good half of my time mentoring people — discussing projects, looking at results, planning experiments, helping develop their ideas. And then about 25% of my time is administrative and bureaucracy things. And then the other 25% is my time to think about new ideas or grant funding or doing writing, and seeing patients who have these conditions.

Another challenge was having a lab be a year old and then head straight into pandemic shutdowns. Everything paused and went on a slow burn for a while.

The proud moments 

Despite the pandemic, we’ve had trainees get their own fellowships, we’ve had papers come out, so that’s all been very, very exciting. Those are my proudest moments — seeing their projects get moving.

The lessons learned 

No matter what we do, it’s a very large team-based effort now. It’s not just a scientist working with another scientist. We have to be scientists working with clinicians, working with data scientists, with computational biologists. And even beyond all that, it’s about working with the community — advocates and families and the people who are affected by these conditions. Definitely the research that we do is driven and guided by the families. Their insights and what they’re telling us points us to what’s most important to look at.

Salil Garg

Garg is a clinical investigator at MIT’s Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research. He also is a practicing pathologist at Massachusetts General Hospital and Brigham and Women’s Hospital.

As a postdoc at the Koch Institute in 2017, Garg was looking at gene regulation in cancer. Now focused on the connections between cancer and standard biological development, he’s trying to pin down how those normal processes get off track to drive cancer.

The challenges 

The biggest challenges are not the scientific ones. The science is fun, but how do you recruit people and convince them to work with you on your vision and keep them engaged and happy and working together productively? How do you mentor people through life and science and all these career transitions?

We also don’t get a lot of management coaching during training, so you have to figure it out on the fly — like how to keep a budget. We have all the fun and excitement and challenges of being a professor, running a startup, and managing a franchise business all in one.

The proud moments

My proudest moments are definitely how the people I’ve worked with in the lab have done in their next step. I worked closely with two undergraduates who are now at Stanford doing their Ph.D.s in genetics. We had a technician who’s now doing his Ph.D. at Vanderbilt in cell biology. Just to see them grow and come into their own scientifically, it’s really exciting.

The lessons learned

The best lesson, and it’s a challenging one, is learning how to stay focused and to try to take on a limited number of things to actually get them done. The biggest part that I still have to improve on is how to say no when people ask you to do things. There are all kinds of things that are awesome to help out with and you want to help out with, but then you also have to focus. It’s tough to find that time management balance and push through that.

I’ve also learned that it’s very difficult to judge how good someone is going to be scientifically in the lab based on initial impressions. People will surprise you. One thing that seems more durable is, how much do you enjoy chatting with them about science? Is it exciting and fun and stimulating and engaging? I think that might matter more than how did they do GPA-wise or on a test or something.

Bianca Jones Marlin

Marlin also stayed at the same institution where she did her postdoc, and is now an assistant professor at Columbia University. She’s still digging into the overarching scientific question of how factors like stress, trauma, and parental relationships play a role in brain development and affect future generations.

The challenges

One of the biggest challenges is to rein in all of our ideas. I’m so excited to be running my own lab. I work with really amazing, smart, and thoughtful students, and I want them to do an array of things. But sometimes we need to focus on one thing at one time. So my interests are really broad, but the biggest task is honing in that desire and hunger to answer all those scientific questions and really doing one step to the next. As a postdoc, you have the ability to focus on your one project, but now that I have many people working on many different projects, I can very easily think of the next and think of the next and not tend to the first and tend to the present.

The proud moments

I would say the proudest moment of opening my own lab is that within itself. The science that comes out of this lab is work coming from students and trainees and junior scientists that I am mentoring and walking through the scientific process. It’s being brought to fruition by them. And that is such a beautiful dance of brains that I’m continually impressed by them and the way that we can do that.

The lessons learned

The lesson I’m in the process of learning — and I think about it daily — is really focusing on being able to spread myself where it’s needed, and not spread myself too thin. The work has really taken off and people are really hungry for more information and for our lab to collaborate. And we only have 100% of our attention, and when 300% of it is being requested, it really is a discipline to say no, which is scary. But I’m realizing what they want is the best of me as a scientist, and so when I’m not at my best, I shouldn’t offer to give my best.

Andrew Boozary

Boozary’s trajectory was clear five years ago: As a primary care physician, he would fight to improve care for marginalized populations. He now lives that work every day at Toronto’s University Health Network, in ways few could imagine before the Covid-19 pandemic deepened the chasm between people who live in comfort and people who live in poverty.

He also leads the Gattuso Centre for Social Medicine, dedicated to finding new models of care to meet people’s needs in a more expansive definition of health that addresses food insecurity, homelessness, and other barriers to care.

The challenges

We have a quote-unquote universal health care system [in Canada], but we are ridden with health inequities, from accessing the health care system to the affordability of essential medicines to elders accessing home care or long-term-care homes. We saw the pandemic expose this in the cruelest of ways.

The suffering for people in poverty has been compounded through the pandemic, with both a worsening overdose crisis, the homelessness crisis, and the pandemic where we’ve seen such systemic discrimination as to who is getting access early on to the vaccine, who’s been able to stay at home to save their lives. And that’s something that, you know, our team has been fighting really hard for in terms of improving that access and that care throughout the pandemic.

The proudest moments

I wanted to stay in Canada, and the neighborhood that I was born in had some of the worst poverty and the worst access to vaccines early on. And so to be able to work with community leaders, community ambassadors to try to really narrow those gaps and bring people and families to the safety that they deserve has been something that I don’t think I would have been able to be doing anywhere else. That’s what really could keep me at home, knowing that we’ve got our work cut out for us in Toronto, the fact that there is such vibrancy and resiliency in these communities that I’m just so fortunate to serve.

The lessons learned

We are dealing with the weight of historical inequities now coming to the surface that are determining who lives and dies in a pandemic. There’s no retreating from what health equity means now.

Leslie Mitchell

Mitchell’s track from postdoc at New York University to CEO at startup Neochromosome was already clear in 2017. She had her big idea: designing new genomes into cells for biotech applications. She was already a co-founder of the company based on this platform, splitting her time 50-50 between academic lab and the business, but she moved over to Neochromosome full-time in March 2020, when she convinced two NYU lab colleagues to join her.

The challenges

The challenge was really how to scale up. Obviously venture money was the thing you would do next. To scale the platform, it’d be helpful to show having some customers. But in order to get those customers, we needed the platform. So we sort of got into this chicken-and-egg problem. We ended up merging our company with a slightly later-stage startup here in the city, called Opentrons. Since the acquisition closed in March 2021, we have grown from a team of three people to 30 or 40 people.

The proudest moments

We created this new opportunity in the context of Opentrons and this merger. I think the proudest moment is we are positioned with the team we have and are building to really see the scale-up of this technology platform and have an impact on people’s lives. With this much larger team comes the opportunity to move a lot faster. It’s pretty incredible.

The lessons learned

I think the biggest one is approach every challenge from a first-principles approach. So I think that’s a big lesson, just being part of Opentrons and starting to work with a much broader range of individuals. I think that’s the number-one way to approach every challenge or opportunity: breaking down problems to their constituent components and then building a solution around that.

Bin Cao

Bin Cao has moved halfway around the world, from postdoc at Washington University School of Medicine to assistant professor and vice chair of Xiamen University School of Medicine’s Research Center for Reproductive Medicine in China. The science he studies has not changed: He still focuses on infectious diseases during pregnancy, including but not limited to the Zika virus. He has also developed several projects to determine the fundamental biology of placental development.

As a lab leader, his work ranges from bench research to grant applications, punctuated by meetings and presentations while also teaching and mentoring.

The challenges

It is harder to keep the balance between family responsibilities and the increased pressure from work.

The proudest moments

First, when my son kissed me for the first time. Second one, when my very first graduate student published her first paper.

The lessons learned

Setting up a lab from scratch is not an easy job. I learned that you have to evaluate everyone’s weaknesses and strengths in the lab, and push them to work closely with high efficiency, especially when you only have limited resources within the first two years.

Create a display name to comment

This name will appear with your comment