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From Martial Arts to Cloning Oncogenes

Conquest - Fall 2011

Four Mentors Help Shape DePinho’s Career

By Sandi Stromberg

Ronald DePinho, M.D., was a martial artist 
in high school and competed around the 
United States.

Though a grand master would seem a non-traditional mentor for a physician-scientist, Ronald DePinho, M.D., credits Ik Jo Kang and martial arts with his being a good student.

From Kang, he learned basic principles of this centuries-old tradition — built on a philosophy of respect, courtesy, humility, discipline and courage.

“It’s not about kicking and punching,” says DePinho, who was 16 at the time and a national champion. “It’s something very positive for people and makes them better social beings. It also set the stage for my academic accomplishments.”

That’s why mentoring rates high with him, and why he credits the growth of his career to four men who shepherded him to what he calls a “measure of competency.”

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His second mentor came during his internship and residency at Columbia-Presbyterian Medical Center. Qais Al-Awqati, M.D., professor of physiology, cellular biophysics and medicine, encouraged DePinho to take that risky jump from pursuing a clinical sub-specialty to joining his laboratory and learning more about the “why” of disease.

Tale of two labs

That experience took him back to his medical school, Albert Einstein College of Medicine, to train in the laboratory of Matthew Scharff, M.D., professor in the Department of Cell Biology, and one of the leaders in molecular immunology.

“He took this person who knew very little science and patiently brought me to a point where I understood how to approach scientific questions and data — and communications,” DePinho says of his third mentor. “It wasn’t just about the next experiment. It was about gaining skills to build a sustainable career.”

While he was a resident at Columbia-Presbyterian, DePinho started a project with his fourth mentor, Fred Alt, Ph.D., also a leader in molecular immunology and oncogenes.

“I was working on cloning new oncogenes and moved back to Columbia to work with Fred and finish my scientific training,” DePinho says. “In fact, I worked in both Matt’s and Fred’s labs simultaneously. Eventually, I decided to pursue the project in Fred’s lab because it held the greater interest for me.”

Alt taught him molecular biology and modern science at an exciting time when recombinant DNA technology was starting.

“Fred is one of the best molecular biologists in the world,” DePinho says. “We were at the leading edge of science. He taught me to do very high-level science with an eye toward moving the knowledge gained forward into clinical medicine.”

A path DePinho still follows.

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