1 Year Out: Chris McGinnis

1 Year Out1 Year Out is an interview series highlighting alumni from the class of 2014 who are engaged in public service, entrepreneurship, or nonprofit work in any capacity- through their employment, a volunteer position, or on the side. 

Chris_McGinnis_ISBSo tell me about your life 1 Year Out of Wesleyan!

Since completing a meandering cross-country road trip with Isaac Silk (’14) last July, I have established roots in Seattle, WA working for the non-profit Institute of Systems Biology (ISB) as a research associate. When I’m not in the lab, I see a lot of concerts and take advantage of the gloriously-accessible PNW outdoors by climbing and hiking, mostly in the Cascade Mountain Range but also on the Olympic Peninsula and in British Columbia/Oregon.

How are you involved in public service, entrepreneurship, or nonprofit work?

ISB is unique compared to other biology research centers because, as a non-profit that is not affiliated with any academic institution, ISB research programs are more flexible and ambitious than what’s seen in your average lab. For instance, I study the mechanisms by which stem cells make decisions during development, but am also expected to work closely with scientists with a wide variety of backgrounds. Whether I’m learning how to code from computational biologists who are attempting to quantify human ‘wellness,’ or discussing outreach strategies with ecologists who design ‘aquaponic’ systems for sustainable agriculture, I can easily get involved without worrying about the departmental boundaries or economic pressures expected elsewhere. Moreover, ISB offers a lot of outreach opportunities that I regularly participate in, such as writing for ISB’s editorial board, manning an ISB booth at different science expos, leading tours of ISB for local science educators, and forming mentor relationships with undergraduate and high school students.

How did you get there?

During my junior and senior years at Wes, I worked as a teaching assistant for Professor Bob Lane’s Intro Bio and Genomics courses. When I took these courses as a freshman and sophomore, I learned about Dr. Lee Hood’s pioneering work on the Human Genome Project and his current efforts at ISB in the field of Personalized Medicine (PM). Briefly, PM involves integrating ‘classical’ clinical information with the high-dimensional ‘omics’ data produced by modern sequencing technologies, with the goal of treating patients with individualized therapies. I found PM fascinating for scientific and non-scientific reasons, and decided to write a senior essay about PM with Professor Anna Gelzter through SISP. With this project under my belt, my previous research experiences at Wes and UCONN Health Center, and Professor Lane’s connections with Dr. Hood, I was able to connect the necessary dots to secure a position in the Hood Group at ISB.

Describe a typical day at your position.

Systems biology is, essentially, a field analogous to biophysics or computational biology in the way that math, computer science, and biology are integrated together. When I first arrived at ISB, however, I had never written a single line of code and subsequently spent the first few months as a wet-bench biologist. I learned how to culture and manipulate a variety of different human cell types, isolate RNA and protein from these cells, and perform the experiments associated with single cell biology. Within a few months, however, I came to understand that research requires people to generate and analyze data and, as I had far less experience with the latter, I decided to learn how to code. Now, I split my time between doing computational analysis and experimental biology. This is all to say that it is difficult to conceptualize a “typical” day at ISB, as I am constantly doing and learning new things.

How do your race, gender, class background, sexuality, and other identities factor into your work?

ISB is a wildly diverse place to work and, as a result, collaborating successfully with my colleagues requires a decent understanding of their varying cultural backgrounds. For example, my team – colloquially known as the “Stem Cell Kids” – consists of myself (Vermont, USA), and the three post-doctoral fellows Rhishikesh Bargaje (Pune, India), Martin Shelton (Louisiana, USA), and Kalliopi Trachana (Crete, Greece). Everyone brings their own views and experiences to the lab, and it is interesting to reflect on how my relationships with Kalli, Martin, and Rhishi are in-step with their culturally-informed personalities.

What is unexpectedly great about your job? 

The freedom I have to explore — I am encouraged and expected to curiously peruse the literature, to try different algorithms and methods, or to lead discussions on topics that are not directly related to my research project.  

What’s the hardest thing about your position that you’re willing to share? What are some characteristics that would make your type of work hard for someone?

Wet-bench research is very difficult because there are so many variables that need to be controlled. An illustrative example: This past summer, I was attempting to culture human gut cells and was plagued by bacterial contamination time and time again. When contamination occurs, one needs to troubleshoot the problem by designing an experiment that tests each of the potential culprits. I swapped out my reagents, changed incubators, meticulously cleaned the laboratory equipment, and channeled my inner germophobe — all to no avail. The problem ended up being “Certified Sterile” tubes that, simply, were not. I came away from the experience learning a valuable lesson: that wet-bench research requires a level of attention to detail that some (including myself, at times) may find difficult.

Does the compensation you receive in this field meet your financial needs? If not, how do you make ends meet?

All I really need to pay for is rent and food – which is sufficiently covered by my ISB salary.

What’s the best advice you’ve received?

To not rush through my scientific career. Up until very recently, I thought that I wanted to go to medical school to become a practicing oncologist, and was even preparing to apply during my senior year so that I could matriculate immediately after Wes graduation. Instead, I listened to advice from a family friend and decided to look for one or two-year post-graduate research positions. Now, I have relinquished my plans of applying for medical school (I am currently applying for PHD and MD/PHD programs), due to the amazing experiences I’ve had at ISB so far. Using biology to save peoples’ lives is, without a doubt, an incredibly important and fulfilling profession. However, I have come to realize that I enjoy thinking about the broader biological concepts – hence the shift in goals that never would have happened had I continued to feel rushed.    

What would you recommend to current students considering work like yours?

(1) To not feel pressured into jumping into graduate school immediately after leaving Wes – there is no rush! And (2) learn how to code.

If Wes students or recent grads have questions about working in your field, could they contact you?

Absolutely! Wes lets us keep your email address after graduation, so reach me at cmcginnis@wesleyan.edu — or, for the more emboldened, call me at 802-343-6212!


Jennifer Roach is the Civic Engagement Fellow in Allbritton for the academic year 2015-2016. She is a recent Wesleyan alumni, class of 2014. Since graduating, she has moved to Hartford to continue developing Summer of Solutions Hartford, an urban farming internship program she worked on during her time at Wesleyan.