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Interview With Three-Time MGSAAA Recipient Colles Price, PhD

Dr. Colles Price is a post-doctoral research fellow at Harvard Medical School in the laboratory of Dr. William Hahn at the Dana Farber Center Institute and the Broad Institute. He received a PhD in Cancer Biology at the University of Chicago, where he also completed an MS in Translational Research. He is a four-time recipient of the Minority Graduate Student Abstract Achievement Award.

What was it about research that led you to a PhD in Cancer Biology over becoming an oncologist? Or is an MD still in your future?

I wanted to do impact and meaningful research but I didn't want to necessarily spend all my time treating patients. It is amazing the amount of patient-related work you can do with a Ph.D., much of it I was unaware of when I first started my graduate work. Also, after interacting with patient advocacy groups and cancer survivors it is amazing to see how much they value and appreciate the research that we do.

I’ve also learned that a PhD or MD isn’t as static as I originally thought. I’ve met PhDs who only work with patients and spend all their time in the clinic and do little to no research, and I’ve met MDs who only do research and don’t do anything directly patient related. When I look at those people what I have learned is that if you are driven, talented and passionate then you’re not locked into any one particular career path, you can make your degree and training work for you.

I think it is becoming more apparent that the vast majority of people don’t go into academic research jobs. There is so much to do with your PhD that I definitely think it’s a great degree to have and I would encourage current graduate students to stick with it and get that degree.

I think the best way to decide which degree to obtain is to think about what you really want from your advanced degree. It is 4-5 (maybe 6, maybe 7) years of hard work and you don’t want to feel it wasn’t worth it. I was extremely passionate about the research side and I thought that a PhD would provide the best amount of training and mentorship to have a career in cancer research. Now that I have graduated and moved on to a postdoctoral fellowship I am absolutely sure I made the right decision.

Also, there is definitely no MD in my future. I’ve had way too much school. I’ll have to pass.

Why is the field of hematology important to your research?

I feel that hematology has created the foundation for all of cancer research. In my opinion, and clearly I am biased, it is one of the best systems to train in cancer biology. Some of the models are fantastic, obtaining patient samples is more straightforward, and several of the tools and techniques I learned throughout my career were substantially easier in hematology.

I appreciate my training in hematology so much now. This is especially true as I also work on solid malignancies. It’s amazing how much you can learn from hematology that can be applied to solid malignancies and vice versa. Although each cancer is very different and unique there are still some connections and biological lessons that can be learned in one system and applied to another.

Hematology is also a fundamental cornerstone of understanding solid malignancies. My knowledge of the bone marrow and hematopoiesis has helped my solid malignancies project in unpredictable ways. Thus, I believe a strong understanding and knowledge of hematology is important, regardless of what you are studying.

Do you believe your personal background (who you are and where you are from) guides your research interests in anyway?

Absolutely, I think this is true for everyone. I find myself thinking of having a more diverse representation of ethnicities in cancer studies and clinical trials than my peers with a different background. I think that all of us are somewhat defined by our background to some degree and that enables us to think differently. Also, especially true in science, our background as scientists isn’t just where we grew up and who we are but a collection of other things. For example, who did you train with? I get that question more frequently than I am willing to admit. Who you trained with generates assumptions and reactions from several different investigators. I’ll admit that my training and my mentors have probably biased some of my personal scientific preferences.

Also, I have been heavily mentored and supported throughout my education and career. Because of this I think I have felt a strong need to be a mentor towards others. I have had several undergraduate students throughout my graduate studies in the laboratory and mentored high school students and undergraduates outside the lab.

What do you like to do to unwind after a long day in the lab?

This is a great question. It really depends on the day. I have a family so most days I love to go home and spend time with them. After they go to bed I try and play some keyboard or guitar, do some science reading and maybe get a little Xbox in before bed.

If it is a terrible day (these never happen in research, right?) then I try and gather the forces (my name for friends and colleagues) and unwind at the local pub. It is amazing how important your peer support system can be. These are the people who understand the frustrations of science and can lift you when you need it. And for those really, really bad days I have been thinking about taking up boxing.

What would you say to a room full of K-12 science teachers who wanted to know your thoughts on how to inspire more students, especially from underrepresented groups, to become researchers?

I think the most important factors to bestow onto the future and budding scientists is excellence, curiosity and passion.

Above everything we need excellent and rigorous science. We find ourselves in an unusual and weird time where the public has lost a lot of faith in the researchers and so it is important to be as good as a scientist as possible. That means accurate, faithful and reproducible science. Those fundamental and rigorous skills need to be acquired early. If kids can learn to be rigorous and thorough with their experiments/science from K-12 then it will become second nature by the time they get to college and graduate school. There is too much bad science out there and it can make it hard to convince people your research is important when bad research might contradict it. On a similar note tell your students to practice talking about their interest, science and research to their friends and family. Good scientific communication is an important part of excellent science.

Curiosity is important because science is cool and interesting and you should feel that way. That sense of wonder and curiosity is evident in the younger kids and should be nurtured and supported throughout their entire lives. It is awesome and fun to be a scientist. You get to discover new things all the time that no one else knew and get to present that work to the world. You are constantly in the land of discovery while at the same time you are trying to heal the people of the world. I cannot think of a cooler and more interesting career. Well I can, but still, this is a fun and great career. Importantly, especially as teachers, you can directly drive their curiosity every day. This curiosity is ultimately tied with the love of learning, again another skill that teachers can directly support.

Finally, passion is the driving force through the day. I heard from a famous Nobel Laureate that science doesn’t work 90% of the time. You need to have the passion and conviction to be satisfied and happy with that 10% that does work. I think this is probably one of the most accurate statements about research I have heard in my career. It’s hard to be in a field where you are in uncharted territory and trying to pave a new way forward and make groundbreaking discoveries.

It can be particularly hard being a scientist as an underrepresented minority. It is not uncommon that I find myself one of the few, if not the only, person of color in the room. It doesn’t not bother me or affect my work but I have friends who were really bothered by it. Either way, if the students strive to be the best scientist they can be then they might find that road of excellence can be extremely difficult and lonely. That’s when their true passions will get them through the hard moments and let them delight in the good moments.

What would you say to a budding hematologist? What lessons have you learned through your experiences that you would like to pass along to those considering a career in medical research?

Enjoy your career. There is so much you can do in your life and many of these career options are time consuming and difficult paths so you have to love what you do. It seems almost impossible to survive if you aren’t in love with it. Also, don’t forget that we have the potential to really help people and save lives. Research can be a slow field but it is a fulfilling one, so enjoy it. Make new colleagues/friends, discover amazing things and be prepared to change the world.

I have enjoyed where my career has progressed and I have a ton of people to thank for it. I think stressing the importance of mentorship and having a support system of mentors, colleagues, friends and family is absolutely important. You can’t have enough mentors and having colleagues will only help you build your own research network and help further your career along.