March 2009 Mentor of the Month Interview: Alex Rai
Biography
  1. What is your job title and affiliation?
  2. Briefly tell us about your educational and career background
  3. What are your Board certifications?
  4. With which professional societies/organizations (e.g. AACC) are you involved?
  5. Just for fun, tell us a few interesting facts about yourself.
Career
  1. What area(s) do you specialize in?
  2. What initiated your interest in this (these) area(s) and how did you eventually choose this (these) area(s) for your career?
  3. What are your clinical and research interests?
  4. You were named AACC’s Young Investigator of the Year. Describe how you achieved this accomplishment and some of the keys to your success at such an early age.
  5. What, in your opinion, has been the most important contribution you have made to the field of laboratory medicine?
  6. Are there specific aspects of practicing laboratory medicine that you find unappealing?
  7. What were some of the most rewarding and/or challenging moments of your career?
  8. How would you recommend achieving an optimal work/life balance?
  9. What excites you about practicing laboratory medicine everyday?
  10. What are your predictions for advances in laboratory medicine and/or your area over the next ten years?
  11. What do you see as the challenges facing young scientists in laboratory medicine?
  12. What specific goals would you recommend that young scientists in your discipline set for themselves? Any suggestions on how to achieve them?
  13. Describe how you have been able to give back or contribute to the organizations and the profession in general through your involvement in AACC.
  14. How did you get started in these organizations and what advice do you have for young people wanting to get involved?
  15. Do you have any other specific comments or advice that you like to provide to the members of SYCL?
Biography
  1. What is your job title and affiliation?
    I am currently an Assistant Attending Clinical Chemist in the Department of Clinical Laboratories at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center. I also have a secondary appointment in the Department of Pathology, specifically the Molecular Diagnostics Service, at the same institution.
  2. Briefly tell us about your educational and career background.
    I have B.S. with Honors in Biochemistry from the State University of New York at Stony Brook. Subsequently, I continued my graduate studies at the same institute, and had the good fortune of conducting my PhD thesis work at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory in New York. After that, I moved to Johns Hopkins to complete the COMACC approved post-doctoral fellowship program. I stayed there just over 5 years, moving up from Fellow to Instructor to Asst Professor during that time. In January 2006, I moved to my current position at Memorial Sloan-Kettering in New York.
  3. What are your Board certifications?
    DABCC
  4. With which professional societies/organizations (e.g. AACC) are you involved?
    AACC, NACB, CLAS. I am a member of all of these organizations and hold positions for each of them.
  5. Just for fun, tell us a few interesting facts about yourself:
    • Family
      My wife Shilpa and my son Aseem (10 months old).
    • Favorite places you have traveled
      Outside the US, I have backpacked through several countries in Europe, have traveled a good part of Northern India, a good part of Thailand, and have also visited China and Malaysia.
    • Favorite book/movie
      Books would include “Catcher in the Rye,” which I read many years ago- one of my favorites. I also read a great book this past year which I would highly recommend to everyone- it’s called “Life is So Good”. Every few years I pick up The Canterbury Tales, which has some wonderful and funny stories. I also enjoy and have read many of Michael Crichton’s books over the years. As far as movies, I saw “Slumdog Millionaire” about 2 months ago and this is certainly one of the best movies I have seen in a very long time. Otherwise, I enjoy comedies.
    • Most fun/adventurous thing you’ve ever done
      The summer after high school I worked for the U.S. Census Bureau, and had the opportunity to speak with many different types of people from all walks of life- I remember this being very important and influencing important decisions at this early age. As far as adventurous- in the second year of graduate school, some friends and I backpacked throughout Europe for about a month- we had a great time exploring many European countries. Also, a few years ago my wife and I bicycled through several villages in the Alsace region of France, and had the opportunity to visit many of the wineries that the area is known for.
Career
  1. What area(s) do you specialize in?
    Being at an academic center, I have the opportunity to participate in both clinical service and research (as well as teaching!). On the clinical side, I help to oversee the entire clinical chemistry laboratory at Memorial Hospital. I am one of four attendings here at MSK with service responsibilities in Chemistry. In that regard, I am a general clinical chemist, but since we are a cancer-focused hospital, the issues we deal with are highly focused on cancer and cancer patient management. On the research side, our interests lie in designing the next generation of tests for cancer patient management. In addition, our goals are to discover new markers and evaluate new technologies, and ultimately to translate the newest technologies into clinically useful tests that can be used clinically for patient management by our oncologist colleagues.
  2. What initiated your interest in this (these) area(s) and how did you eventually choose this (these) area(s) for your career?
    My former colleague and boss, Daniel Chan at Johns Hopkins, got me interested and started in biomarkers (almost 10 years ago now). There, over the course of a few years, my colleagues and I developed a viable workflow for proteomics- and bioinformatics-based biomarker discovery. In late 2005, Marty Fleisher recruited me to Memorial Sloan-Kettering. I used my background in molecular biology to incorporate gene expression profiling and SNP analysis and modified these previous protocols. We established a biomarker laboratory and in collaboration with the clinicians at Memorial Hospital, are working to evaluate new technologies, discover new biomarkers, design and validate these assays, submit them for regulatory approval to the New York State Department of Health, and ultimately translate them into clinically useful tests.
  3. What are your clinical and research interests?
    Personalized medicine (which encompasses biomarkers and pharmacogenetics), new technologies, and translational research
  4. You were named AACC’s Young Investigator of the Year. Describe how you achieved this accomplishment and some of the keys to your success at such an early age.
    James Rothman, a renowned cell biologist, is one of my scientific heroes. He said this about scientific success: “it’s good to be smart, but it’s better to be lucky.” I owe my success to the good fortune of having several great mentors- all of whom have provided me with incredible opportunities. Coupled to this is the opportunity to work at places where I have been surrounded by wonderful, brilliant colleagues- many of whom have taught me quite a bit. The combination of great mentors, a wonderful environment, excellent opportunities, some hard work, and luck have produced great results thus far.
  5. What, in your opinion, has been the most important contribution you have made to the field of laboratory medicine?
    I think the most important contributions are ahead of me. As I think back over the last 15 years, every few years I have changed my focus, but each new area has been chosen in such a way that I can add to what I’ve learned before. In graduate school in the mid to late 90s, I spent the years learning all the various techniques in cell and molecular biology. I was interested in translating this basic science background into something that was more clinically applicable and sought training in clinical chemistry. After going through the Hopkins program, I learned the fundamentals of operations in the clinical laboratory as well as expanding my scientific and technical expertise in a field that was at the start of a scientific revolution (proteomics). We contributed to the field by working out some of the initial procedures for biomarker discovery as well as laying the groundwork for future studies by providing guidance for standardizing procedures. When I moved to Memorial Sloan-Kettering, we incorporated gene expression profiling and pharmacogenetic analysis into these biomarker discovery and validation efforts and now apply newer technologies for testing clinical samples derived from patients enrolled in clinical trials. Each new step has added to my previous experience and allowed me to apply it to new paradigms.
  6. Are there specific aspects of practicing laboratory medicine that you find unappealing?
    Although not necessarily unappealing, regulatory issues are one particular area where I could use more expertise. I guess this will develop over time and with greater oversight experience.
  7. What were some of the most rewarding and/or challenging moments of your career?
    Every few months we get a result that is very exciting and makes up for all those times that things do not work as expected. This is part of the scientific process but it’s these moments that make us realize why we do what we do as scientists and why we work so hard.
  8. How would you recommend achieving an optimal work/life balance?
    Very good question. This is something I have been striving for (but have not always been successful). It has become particularly important after the birth of my son- now I try to be as efficient as possible at work so that I can get home at a reasonable time for the most important things in life. Exercise is also very important and gives you more energy to be able to do more throughout the day.
  9. What excites you about practicing laboratory medicine everyday?
    Knowing that today could be the day that I have designed an assay that can change patient management and may potentially reduce (even mildly) the suffering from disease.
  10. What are your predictions for advances in laboratory medicine and/or your area over the next ten years?
    Medicine will become individualized. The standard approach of “one-size-fits-all” will no longer apply for patient management. This will have important implications for the clinical laboratory. Molecular diagnostics testing will become even more critical for understanding the nuances of the disease process and human variation. Point-of-care devices and nanotechnologies will also explode over the coming years, as will the many applications of bioinformatics and also biometrics.
  11. What do you see as the challenges facing young scientists in laboratory medicine?
    Keeping up with everything is a challenge. For young scientists, it’s important to get a broad overview in the beginning but then to develop a focused expertise in a particular area. Knowing what expertise you want to develop early on helps.
  12. What specific goals would you recommend that young scientists in your discipline set for themselves? Any suggestions on how to achieve them?
    This depends on what stage of their career they are at- early on it’s important to develop a comprehensive and broad expertise.
  13. Describe how you have been able to give back or contribute to the organizations and the profession in general through your involvement in AACC.
    I actively participate in a number of divisions and local sections, in addition to other clinical laboratory related organizations (NACB, CLAS). In several of them, I hold positions on the Executive committee and last year, I co-organized the annual CLAS meeting which focused on Personalized Medicine.
  14. How did you get started in these organizations and what advice do you have for young people wanting to get involved?
    Find good mentors, take on new opportunities, and do your best to do a good job! This is a cycle that feeds on itself.
  15. Do you have any other specific comments or advice that you like to provide to the members of SYCL?
    Get involved, and you will get noticed. Be ready and look out for opportunities- as Jean Jacques Rousseau said, “Chance favors the prepared mind.”
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