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Duke University Medical Center

What’s something that people may not know about you?

In 2012, one of my closest friends (who also officiated my wedding) sent me the first chapter of a book that he was writing and asked for comments. In 2015, he moved to San Francisco and lived with me and my wife for a few months while completing the final draft and incorporating copy edits. My friend is J.D. Vance and his book became a New York Times bestseller. I highly recommend that you read it. If you’re pressed for time, you can instead stream the movie adaptation – also titled ‘Hillbilly Elegy’ – on Netflix. I’m still working on a pithy title for my own memoir. 


How did you get into brain cancer epidemiology?

Growing up in rural NE Ohio, I had a great deal of exposure to our local Amish community which accounts for 20% of all county residents. My mother worked as a teaching assistant at the county school for the developmentally handicapped, and I too attended preschool there as an “inclusion student” (half the preschool class was comprised of developmentally on-track children and the remainder developmentally handicapped). Five-year old me was aware that of the developmentally handicapped students, the Amish students seemed to be overrepresented in the halls, so I did what any little kid would do and incessantly asked “Why?” to every adult I could corner. The responses varied, but my mother’s answer was the one that stuck in my brain for years to come: “It’s genetics, sweetie.” I left preschool convinced that I needed to learn about this “genetics” stuff, and this ultimately led me to pursue a bachelor’s degrees in molecular genetics and in anthropology at Ohio State. One day, my favorite anthropology professor connected me with a cancer research team that needed to apply population genetics approaches to understand the origins of a cancer-associated gene mutation. This undergraduate research experience directed my graduate career toward genetic epidemiology, which enabled me to apply both anthropology and genetics to the study of human disease. An NCI post-doctoral training grant at UCSF gave me the opportunity to perform this research in adult glioma patient populations, an area of tremendous need, and the rest is history. 


What has the Sontag Foundation afforded you as a Distinguished Scientist?

The Distinguished Scientist Award is an incredible endorsement of one’s promise as a brain tumor researcher and, more generally, one’s promise as a scientist. Receiving the DSA gave me the freedom to tackle challenging problems and carve out new niches in neuro-oncology research. Additionally, other DSA recipients who form our Sontag Foundation “community of scientists” are some of my closest collaborators and generously serve as a sounding board for new ideas and approaches.