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LGBTQ+ Pride Month: Q&A With Featured Research Trainee Christopher Pai
Editor’s note: Our Featured Research Trainee during LGBTQ+ Pride Month is Christopher Pai (they/them), who is a graduate student working in the lab of Robert Heuckeroth, MD, PhD. They earned their bachelor’s of science degree in biochemistry from the University of Wisconsin–Madison, and they are currently a PhD student at the University of Pennsylvania. In this Q&A, Pai discusses their research interests, their experience working at CHOP, and Pride Month.
Tell us about yourself, your background, and your academic journey.
I grew up being read as male in an upper-middle class, predominantly White suburb, with all the privileges that entails. After a brief research experience in high school in an organic chemistry lab, I went to the University of Wisconsin–Madison, where I worked with proteins that can modify the expression levels of specific genes using a series of subtly different protein segments. I graduated in 2016 with a BS in biochemistry.
After graduating, I started at the University of Pennsylvania for my PhD. I rotated with my current mentor, Dr. Robert Heuckeroth, over the first few months of 2017, and joined his lab full time later that year. The four years since then have been a long journey, to say the least! I’ve managed to make it this far fueled by the strong desire to learn how we go from a single cell to a full-grown human, with the hope that one day I can use that knowledge to improve people’s lives. Of course, as part of my academic journey, I’ve also come to respect that “improvement” means different things to different people (e.g. Deaf people frequently seeking accommodations over medical interventions), and I try to remember that as I work.
What are some research projects you are working on? Why is your work important? What are your long-term career goals?
The Heuckeroth Lab’s main focus is the nervous system that controls many of the systems that take food from your mouth and move it all the way through your guts. In that context, my main project studies how a small regulatory molecule, miR-137, influences the development of that nervous system while you’re in the womb. Hopefully, that work will provide insight on the networks of genes involved in gut development, and perhaps help fill in the gaps between patients’ symptoms and their underlying genetics.
I’m also collaborating with scientists at the National Institutes of Health to study how one of the 26 genes involved in Williams syndrome contributes to the syndrome’s list of symptoms. The gene I’m studying has been found in a wide variety of tissues and associated with a number of different processes going on within a cell, but it’s been tough to pinpoint any exact be-all-and-end-all function for the gene, making it an interesting challenge to study. Knowing what this particular gene does could help develop better medical interventions for patients with Williams syndrome.
Going forward, I’m thinking of shifting fields and getting into endocrinology so I can improve gender transition-related healthcare. While my transition as a Penn student has been relatively painless, I cannot ignore the instability of my situation, nor the many people whose transitions are more difficult due to inconsistent access to medical infrastructure.
What are some of the most salient training experiences you have had at CHOP thus far? What has been most beneficial for you as a trainee?
Working at CHOP has provided more insight than I ever expected into how medical systems incorporate and apply basic research, as my mentor frequently discusses how my lab's work can directly benefit medical practice. This is to say nothing of my access to a number of high quality research facilities, and the training and assistance to make use of them. Additionally, being able to reach out to CHOP faculty, each an expert on a specific gene, part of the body, or disease, has been invaluable for getting new perspectives on difficult problems and figuring out what my data mean in the context of a human body.
Apart from research, what do you consider your biggest accomplishment? What else fills your days besides work?
I work hard to maintain a diverse life outside of research, but I have a bad habit of picking up interesting projects and never finishing them. This makes it difficult to really put my finger on anything that I’d call my “biggest accomplishment.” On the one hand, I’ve made a folk punk EP, familiarized myself with the academic side of identity politics, and gotten closely involved in a few niche communities — but on the other hand, I’m currently working on practical projects for racial justice, designing my own tarot deck, and helping run a massive community fiction project with thousands of contributors. I can’t really say anything I’ve finished is clearly bigger than anything else, and perhaps the biggest things I’m doing are the things that never end!
June is LGBTQ+ Pride Month. What does Pride month mean to you?
To me, Pride month means “stress.” This is the month where retailers sell limited-time products that appeal specifically to queer folks while continuing to steal wages from their queer employees. Legislators espouse the virtues of diversity while supporting (or at least failing to impede) queerphobic legislation. Companies try to show off their queer-friendliness, but they fail to meaningfully change their internal culture to actually be queer-friendly. It always feels like a bunch of smoke and mirrors trying to pacify my politics while continuing to enforce the status quo. Don't get me wrong; it’s great seeing so many of my peers celebrating their continued existence in a system not designed for them. That said, increased visibility doesn’t always mean increased acceptance, as Pennsylvania’s anti-trans Protect Women’s Sports Act (HB 972) — among many other bills elsewhere in the country — makes obvious.
Share a fun fact about yourself.
I’ve always enjoyed listening to interesting and weird music, usually as background noise for other work that I’m doing. Recently I’ve been digging deeper into math rock, after discovering the genre back in undergrad. It’s a bit of a mix between jazz, alternative rock, and, well, math. It can sometimes be a disorienting genre, since it plays a lot with different song structures, varying speed, and deliberately misaligned rhythms, but sometimes that’s just what I need to focus on some repetitive lab work or writing.