Dr. John Paul Shen '98 is on the cutting edge of cancer research and still enjoys a good game of rugby…
How did a SLUH education influence you to pursue medicine and research?
SLUH gave me a great foundation based on the core principles of the physical sciences: chemistry, physics and biology, and also mathematics, which is also integral to being a scientist. It’s remarkable how frequently we go back to these basic principles when planning or analyzing an experiment. Additionally, a SLUH education should instill a sense of intellectual curiosity, I took this in a science direction, but that really applies across disciplines.
What advice would you give to a SLUH student interested in the sciences and innovation?
Get involved with a project that has you innovating. There are actually opportunities for this if you look hard. Examples would be the FIRST robotics competition, or even working in a biomedical research lab at SLU or Washington University, which is not impossible for a motivated SLUH student.
What is your favorite activity to do in your free time?
Rugby is my passion. I have been playing since my junior year at SLUH and still play at the club level. This year will be my 22nd season. Since moving to San Diego, I have also gotten into sailing and try to take a sail trip every year.
From your own experience, what are the biggest challenges in research and innovation?
One big challenge in science is that the federal grant system that funds most research in the United States tends to favor safe, incremental proposals over those with higher risk of failure, but great true innovation. This issue has been recognized by many and is now being addressed by private philanthropists.
What do you think is the best movie of all time? Tombstone.
What led you to become interested in gene editing and cancer research? My initial training at MIT was in chemistry, and I chose oncology as this seemed like the best field to apply my chemistry knowledge to develop new drugs. When I came to UCSD I changed fields away from chemistry to genomics. The CRIPSR technology I now use for high-throughput gene editing was only developed in 2014, but it was a natural extension of my work in cancer genomics.
What is one thing you’ve always wanted to do? Travel to all 50 states – right now I’m only missing North Dakota.
What or who couldn’t you live without and why? It would be hard to do my job as a scientist without my clinical team (admin assistant, nurse case manager and nurse practitioner) to help manage the cancer patients. I only see patients in clinic one day a week, but someone always needs to be available should they get sick.
What gets you out of bed every day? Working in the cancer field, you’re trying to save someone’s life every day. That should be motivation enough.
What are the most important character traits needed for invention and innovation? Confidence and persistence. One of the quotes I have on my wall is “Fortune favors the bold.” You can’t have innovation without taking some risks, so it’s important to be confident in your own ability and to overcome the fear of failing. Most of the experiments you will run as a scientist will fail, so it’s important to not let this discourage you. Science is more like hitting a baseball – even the best only get a hit about a third of the time – than it is like shooting free throws.
Questions by Nathan Lu '18. Nathan is a member of SLUH’s swim team and the Medical Careers Club, and he serves as President of the Science Club. He is interested in universities such as Washington University-St. Louis, Duke and Northwestern, where he wants to pursue medicine (specifically neuroscience) and biomedical research.