Mentorship, Pharmacogenetics, and the Power of Play: Richard Ho
Although he didn’t originally envision a career in pediatric oncology, Richard Ho fell in love with it during a rotation in his fourth year of medical school. The relationships he developed with the patients’ families were too rewarding to give up. “It’s obviously an intense emotional situation when you have a child that’s diagnosed with cancer,” he says, and “to be able to be involved in the care of those children, with those families, is really a privilege for me. It’s something I just knew at the time that I was meant to do.”
During the clinical year of his fellowship, Dr. Ho noticed at times that patients with the same diagnosis who were of similar age, size and weight and received similar chemotherapy dosing regimens would experience drastically different side effects. Wondering why this was so led him to pharmacogenetics, and ten years later, much of his research now centers on the role of genetic variance in drug uptake transporters in the liver and intestine to chemotherapy disposition in cancer therapy. He believes that “in the future we may be able to use the data that we generate to personalize medicine for pediatric oncology patients so that we can reduce their chances for serious side effects while still maximizing their chances for a cure.”
While of course much of his success has come from his own hard work, Dr. Ho also attributes it to mentorship he received during his postdoctoral fellowship and K-award-supported years as an early career faculty member. In an age where many change jobs and locations every few years, he has stayed at Vanderbilt since entering medical school in 1993, largely because of the collegial, collaborative environment and the supportive infrastructure in place for junior faculty. Although Richard Kim, his original mentor who introduced him to drug transporter biology and pharmacogenetics, moved on from Vanderbilt at the start of his K award period, Ho found that the depth of the mentorship pool at Vanderbilt easily allowed him to find a co-mentor, Dr. Michael Stein in Clinical Pharmacology, with complementary strengths in grantsmanship and career guidance.
As well, strong mentorship helped him develop a thick skin with which to weather rejection of manuscripts and grants. “You have to believe in what you’re doing, believe that the research you’re doing is important, and that it will be viewed favorably by other scientists,” he says, “and that’s where mentorship comes into play. I think other people showed confidence in me before I had confidence in myself.”
Aside from finding mentors you click with, Ho has two pieces of advice for those writing grant proposals. First, get to know NIH program directors. Ho, who is funded through the National Institute of General Medical Sciences, says the program director was “very, very much in my corner” during his K and R application processes. When comments for the first submission of his R01 came in, the two “sat down and talked on the phone for a good deal of time. Obviously these program directors see thousands of grants come in, and they can give you a good deal of insight into what reviewers are looking for in the revised grant. He was a big part of the revision of my R01 in terms of what to focus on and what the reviewers were looking for.”
Second is that there’s “a lot to be said for having fun while you’re doing research.” While a postdoc in Dr. Kim’s lab, he participated in videos that meshed lab culture and pop culture, such as a dance video to N’Sync or a skit related to ER. (Unfortunately for us, none of them are on YouTube.) He plans to do the same with his own lab when it gets a bit bigger. While research is often stressful, the importance of scientific discovery and camaraderie with colleagues, mentors, and mentees keeps him going. Add to that the opportunity to be involved in the care of pediatric cancer patients, and in Vanderbilt, Ho has found a fit for the long term.