Ryan Tewhey graduated from the University of Maine in 2005 with a bachelor’s degree in molecular and cellular biology, with an additional major in biochemistry. Feb. 3, 2012 he completed a Ph.D. in biology at the University of California, San Diego, exploring the use of DNA sequencing to understand what makes MRSA — methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus — so deadly. The microbe is a growing threat in clinical settings such as hospitals and nursing homes, as well as in some nonclinical
Tewhey recently was included in Forbes magazine’s “30 under 30: Science” feature, which highlights high-achieving young scientists.
A native of Gorham, Maine, Tewhey spent two years after completing his studies at UMaine working at the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard, helping to complete the first genome-wide scan for genetic risk factors for Type II diabetes. For the past four years, in conjunction with his doctoral work, he has conducted research at the Scripps Translational Science Institute in San Diego.
What is it that fascinates you about biomedical research?
Examining biological processes and systems at the molecular level gives me an appreciation for how intricate and sophisticated life is. I also want to do work that can benefit society. Biomedical research combines the two, because I am studying how biology works, with the applied focus of medical relevance.
What inspired you to tackle MRSA?
My interest lies in the development and use of new technologies to read each individual base of an organism’s genome. One of the projects we have undertaken is looking at how microbes such as MRSA are changing over time. Colleagues at the local children’s hospital here in San Diego came to us with MRSA samples that they had spent the past five years collecting. We had the capability to survey and decipher the genomes of the organisms, while they had expertise in understanding the clinical biology. It proved to be a great match.
Have you been directly affected by MRSA?
I am thankful I have never been directly affected by an MRSA infection, but it amazes me the number of people who have a story of how they or a family member have been.
How does your current project build on your earlier work with genome sequencing?
My previous work was developing ways to sequence thousands of genes in the human genome simultaneously and at a cost that makes it feasible to look at hundreds of peoples’ DNA. The MRSA work is using some of these same techniques, but to analyze the genomes of pathogens instead.
What is the most important question you’re trying to answer now?
I am really interested in the idea of using DNA sequencing as a way to diagnose an infection. Today, it can take up to 24 hours to identify a microbial pathogen and another day or two to have a reliable profile of which drugs will work on it. By using DNA sequencing as a clinical tool, you could identify a pathogen in a few hours. You also could determine, to an extent, which drugs may be the most successful for a specific patient.
What is the next step in this project?
The number of samples we looked at in the initial study was very small. Because of this, we started collecting additional samples from other hospitals in San Diego last year and are now sequencing these as well. We are hoping to get a much higher-resolution picture of the evolution of the pathogen from these samples. In the initial study, we observed that as specific strains of MRSA evolve, they may be becoming less virulent. As we look at more strains, it will be feasible to narrow in on specific genes in hope of understanding this process.
Where do you look now for inspiration or leadership?
My adviser Nicholas Schork has been incredibly supportive during my time at Scripps. Between him and the director of the institute, Eric Topol, I have learned a lot about how to ask the right questions, not only to strengthen my science but also to conduct research that potentially can have a positive effect on human health.
Why did you choose UMaine for your undergraduate education?
There were a few reasons I chose UMaine. The cost-to-quality ratio was unmatched by any of the other schools I was looking at. When I put all my offers on the table, Maine stood out as the logical choice from a purely financial perspective. But there also were personal reasons. I followed in the footsteps of a lot of my family members who have attended UMaine. It is something special to walk around campus with one of your grandparents and hear them reminisce about life at UMaine 60 years ago.
Was there a particular faculty member or other mentor at UMaine with whom you worked closely?
Dr. Robert Cashon (assistant professor of biochemistry) was my adviser. I always really appreciated how approachable and supportive he was when we met. Dr. Carol Kim (associate professor of biochemistry, microbiology and molecular biology; director of UMaine’s Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences) also was very helpful when I was looking at graduate schools and gave me excellent advice even after I graduated and moved on from Orono.
Describe any important research or scholarship you accomplished while at UMaine.
I worked in Dr. Cashon’s lab my senior year at UMaine, looking at the myoglobin protein in certain fish species. He was very patient in helping beginners acquaint themselves with the laboratory. During my sophomore year, I was awarded the Richard P. Fournier Memorial Scholarship, for which I am very grateful.
Who was your favorite professor?
I had two. Within my major, Anne Hanson, who ran one of the advanced lab classes, was one of the best and most passionate science teachers I’ve ever encountered. The other was Hugh Curran in the Peace and Reconciliation Studies Program. I took one class from him my sophomore year, “Buddhism, Peace and Contemplative Traditions.” It was the best nonscience class I took at UMaine. It really cemented my support for the importance of having a broad liberal arts education.
Were there certain classes that nearly did you in?
Organic chemistry. All of them.
What is your most memorable UMaine moment?
My most memorable moment was the Black Bears making it to the NCAA hockey finals during the 01-02 season. It would have been even better if we had won. That game is right up there on my all time list of heart-crushing defeats.
Fill in the blank: If I knew then what I know now, I would have —-
I would have taken better advantage of UMaine’s proximity to some of Maine’s natural jewels. I made frequent trips to Acadia National Park, but never once to Baxter State Park. In fact, I never hiked Katahdin once while I was in school, which now seems like a tragedy, since I am living 3,000 miles away.
How does UMaine continue to influence your life?
I think the biggest influence is through the good friends that I made during my time at Orono. I always wanted to have close ties to Maine and by attending the university, I was able to build a strong network of friends who share my love for the state. I am proud of having attended the public university of my home state.
What advice would you give to biomed students?
Search out professors early on who are working on a problem you are interested in. The experience of working in an active research lab is critical for standing out on graduate school applications as well as in the private sector. In addition — and this was one of the key messages in Stephen King’s speech at my commencement — it is important for students to leave the state at some point and experience another part of the world. My junior year at UMaine was spent at the University of British Columbia. It was an extremely valuable learning experience in many regards.
If for some reason you could not pursue a career in science, what would you do instead?
My current “alternative career” fantasy involves moving back to Maine and creating artisanal cheeses. I already have the microbiology background!
Image Description: Ryan Tewhey