The Not-So-Simple Life
by Danielle LaVaque-Manty
In addition to heading a research lab at the Life Sciences Institute, Patrick Hu spends half a day each week seeing patients with colon cancer at the U-M Hospital and teaches each year in the Department of Cell and Developmental Biology. On top of all that, he has three children under the age of four, two of whom are twins. "So," he says, "it's important for me to have fairly regular caffeine."
Though he participated in laboratory research as an undergraduate, it wasn't until he'd already completed part of his first year of medical school at New York University that his experience on a project studying gene regulation in E. coli convinced him to pursue a Ph.D. as well as an M.D. and to transfer into the NYU's Medical Scientist Training Program.
From NYU he went on to a residency in internal medicine at Johns Hopkins, and from there to an oncology fellowship at Harvard's Dana-Farber Cancer Institute and a post-doctoral fellowship at Massachusetts General Hospital, where he was awarded a Howard Hughes Medical Institute Postdoctoral Research Fellowship for Physicians and a K08 grant from the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases.
His current work focuses on signal transduction pathways in a nematode called C. elegans. How does this relate to his clinical practice? "It doesn't connect directly yet," he says. "But in spite of the fact that these worms are very different from humans morphologically, at the genomic sequence level there are striking similarities." In particular, molecules involved in certain signaling pathways in the worm are structurally and functionally similar to molecules that may have an impact on the development of prostate, breast, and colon cancers in humans. "Obviously, the worms are much easier to manipulate experimentally," he says, and discovering how the molecules work in the worms may eventually cast some light on the pathogenesis of the human cancers.
His current work on C. elegans is completely different from anything he did in graduate school, but Hu doesn't think this is surprising. "Essentially, as a student, one just tries to learn how to design experiments, and how to do good science. It doesn't really matter what you work on, as long as you have good mentoring."
One of his graduate mentors was Ben Margolis, then a senior post-doc at NYU, now Associate Chair for Research in the U-M's Department of Internal Medicine, where Hu also holds an appointment. "I had a very good experience with him," Hu says. "He's one of the main reasons I'm here."
In addition to Margolis, the Life Sciences Institute was a big draw for Hu. "It's different from standard academic departments, which tend to have collections of scientists who mostly do similar things or have similar interests." At the LSI, in contrast, "there's a very eclectic collection of scientists in terms of what they study and the systems they use, but they seem to be all kindred spirits in that they want to be surrounded by people who aren't studying the same things they are, but who are good collaborators and good colleagues. And that's been great."
Lois Weisman, who has the lab across the hall from Hu's, studies yeast organelle dynamics, a completely different topic, but "it's just great to bounce things off of her and get her opinions on grant proposals and scientific ideas." Weisman also frequently gives advice to Hu's female post-docs, which he appreciates. "I think it's important that they have female mentors."
Though he grew up in Louisiana and was educated on the east coast, Hu enjoys living in Ann Arbor. "It's easier to get around, it's easier to pick up the kids and take them to the doctor, and yet, because it's a university town, it gives us a disproportionate amount of culture that makes it really livable for us."
He laments the lack of good bagels and pizza here, but appreciates the diversity, which he and his wife—a U-M rheumatologist—believe is an important consideration when raising children.
Though Hu does his teaching at the medical school, a couple of undergraduate students have found their way into his lab, including Derek Peters, who just graduated. At the time that Peters signed on, Hu's lab was very small and his staff was fairly inexperienced, so Hu took the unusual step of giving Peters a project of his own. "He actually managed extremely well with it and turned it into a nice thesis. And hopefully we'll be able to get a publication out of it where he'll be first author." Peters plans to stay in Hu's lab for another year before applying to M.D./Ph.D. programs.
Between the teaching, research, medical practice, and child care, does Hu have time for anything else? "Not very much," he says. "If I'm lucky, I can go running once every other weekend."