Posted: November 18, 2015

RESEARCHER PROFILE: Next Generation Mentoring

Amy E Blum, M.A.

Dr. Hui Shen, Ph.D., Assistant Professor of Epigenomics at the Van Andel Institute.

Dr. Hui Shen, Ph.D. is a cancer genomicist who was “born and raised in TCGA.” Now an assistant professor at the Van Andel Institute, Dr. Shen started her career as one of the youngest major contributors to TCGA while a graduate student of Dr. Peter Laird, Ph.D. at USC. From the outset of her graduate education, she had the opportunity to work with multiple mentors spanning scientific fields and institutions, and never lacked for guidance from renowned researchers. Her advice: “Definitely try out team science.”

At an early age, Dr. Shen became fascinated with mathematical principles, which were her first guide to the complex world around her. Later, she became interested in science as a guide to understand the many functions and processes of the human body.  “It’s hard not to get interested in understanding how things work in the world surrounding us or within us, in our bodies,” says Shen, “that is what drew me to science."

Shen’s curiosity drove her to explore many diverse fields.  In college, she took courses across the sciences and even studied studio art, where she learned techniques that now help her to design visualization methods for decoding complex genomic data.

Entering graduate school at the University of Southern California, Dr. Shen was torn between her dual interests in biology and mathematics. In the epigenetic bioinformatics lab of Dr. Peter Laird, Dr. Shen found an ideal synthesis.

Training with Team Science

Like many successful scientists, Dr. Shen feels “eternally indebted to [Dr. Laird]” who served as her mentor and role model. “[Dr. Peter Laird] always talked about his mentor Dr. Piet Borst as his role model and how he tried to emulate his mentor’s critical thinking and high scientific standards,” explains Dr. Shen. “It is funny that this is exactly what I see in Peter himself and try to live up to as well.”

The transference of a scientific philosophy together with a research focus from one scientific “generation” to another is a common theme in graduate level training. In the field of mathematics, the Mathematics Genealogy Project has even mapped these mentorships through time. For example, according to the Genealogy, famous Swiss mathematician Leonhard Euler, who practiced in the 1700s, has 90,311 direct mathematical “descendants,” many of whom are practicing mathematicians today.

For Dr. Shen, however, the idea of a pure linear genealogy reaching back through time can be thrown out the window. What is exceptional about Dr. Shen’s graduate education is not her strong admiration of her primary mentor, Dr. Laird, but the additional training she received from a team of scientists collaborating on The Cancer Genome Atlas (TCGA).

“Imagine that instead of having just one mentor for your graduate studies, having many top-notch scientists as mentors at the same time” explains Shen. “I worked with people who are at the very top of their fields, from the most famous disease experts, to the best in genomics, epigenomics, bioinformatics, and many others. I learned from these amazing scientists not only their knowledge and expertise but also their scientific attitudes and how to work together as a team.”

Starting-Up her Own Team

Through Dr. Shen’s education with TCGA, she learned to work with a rich and complex data set, made connections with renowned scientists, and built the scientific credit that she needed to start her own lab at the Van Andel Institute.

“Being an assistant professor is really like having your own startup” says Shen, “there is a tremendous amount of excitement as well as stress associated with it.” One of the toughest aspects of any startup, including a research laboratory, is securing funding. However, Dr. Shen’s startup in epigenetics is now well-situated to grow, as she just received her first grant as a Principal Investigator (PI), announced on November 18, 2015, from the Ovarian Cancer Research Fund to elucidate the cellular origins of ovarian cancer.

While working on TCGA, Dr. Shen and the TCGA team discovered that ovarian cancer often shares molecular characteristics with other gynecological cancers, suggesting that certain ovarian cancers may share a common or related cellular origin with non-ovarian gynecological cancer types. After gaining interest in mapping the roots of gynecological cancers while working with TCGA, Dr. Shen now hopes to delve into this topic further by investigating the cellular origins of ovarian cancer subtypes.  

“This grant is based off of a question that I had since I started working with TCGA data on the ovarian cancer pilot project six years ago, so I have always been interested in it but never had a chance to explore it” says Shen.

Along with establishing her lab’s research focuses, Dr. Shen is also forming her own team. She currently has a postdoctoral fellow in her lab and will soon be welcoming a new rotation student. In the spirit of her own education, she hopes to help her future students find a research focus that merges their scientific interests, and to expose them to a variety of scientific perspectives and expertise through scientific consortia like TCGA.

“I benefited a lot from all the scientists [that I worked with],” says Dr. Shen, “and this is the best kind of graduate education one could ever have in my opinion.”

Learn more about Hui Shen's grant to study ovarian cancer