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Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine

Student Q&A: Clarence Chan, Medical Scientist Training Program and Interdisciplinary Biological Sciences

Clarence Chan

Clarence Chan, a fifth-year MD-PhD student in the Medical Scientist Training Program and Interdisciplinary Biological Sciences PhD Program, studies the structure and function of biological molecules at the molecular and atomic levels.

Chan earned his Bachelor of Science degree from Harvey Mudd College in Claremont, California. Passionate about science since childhood, it was natural for him to pursue a  graduate degree. When medical school became of interest, Chan was attracted to Northwestern’s MD-PhD program, and the opportunity to combine two somewhat different career paths. 

Where is your hometown?
I was born in Minneapolis, Minnesota, but I spent the majority of my childhood and teenage years in Beijing, China, where my parents worked as expatriates at a Swiss engineering company. In Beijing, I attended a K-12 international school, after which I returned to the U.S. for college in southern California. Being an ‘expat kid,’ I have always had a difficult time pinpointing a single place as my hometown, so I usually tell people my hometown is where my family is (currently, San Francisco and Chicago).

What are your research interests? 
I am interested in studying the structure and function of biological molecules at the molecular and atomic levels. For instance, exactly how does an enzyme recognize its substrate? After binding to its substrate, what does this enzyme do? And what is the underlying chemistry of this interaction? Is there anything special about its respective structure that affects this interaction? The primary technique I use in the lab to answer these types of questions is macromolecular X-ray crystallography, and the focus of my research is structure-function relationships in protein-RNA complexes.

What exciting projects are you working on? 
I am studying an enzyme called ribonuclease P, or RNase P, which assumes an indirect but essential role in protein synthesis. The precise chemical mechanism of RNase P and the structure of the non-bacterial homologues remain largely un-known. What makes RNase P relatively unique among biological catalysts is that its catalytic moiety is composed entirely of RNA instead of amino acids like most enzymes. Therefore, RNase P likely exhibits a different set of structural and functional properties than those characterizing protein enzymes. My research project is to elucidate the structural basis of RNase P substrate recognition and to investigate how it might differ from the primitive or bacterial form of RNase P and the homologues of higher organisms.

What attracted you to the PhD program?
I have loved science since I was a kid, and for a long time knew I wanted to become a scientist—a physicist, actually. While I was in college, my father was diagnosed with cancer and his health deteriorated very rapidly. In the final weeks I spent with my father in the hospital, I came to appreciate the many aspects of medicine that make it more of a discipline than just the study of the scientific basis of disease. And so, I became attracted to the MD-PhD program because it offers a unique opportunity for a student to be trained rigorously as a scientist, and yet, to learn medicine, and explore how one’s research might relate to the broader context of clinical care and application. 

What has been your best experience at Feinberg?
I really enjoy seeing and learning first-hand from physicians how to communicate with and help patients in a clinical setting. I have met many healthcare providers at Feinberg who are tremendously passionate for the work that they do for patients, and it is always inspiring to see them in action.

What do you do in your free time?
My wife and I have a small plot of land at a community garden where we have been gardening. Although I cannot foresee our harvests ever replacing our frequent trips to the grocery store, we have a lot of fun gardening and learning more about it. In my free time at home, I enjoy tinkering with computers (and their parts) and watching scientific and historical documentaries.

What are your plans for after graduation?
My current plan is to do a residency in pathology and to remain in academic medicine while having my own lab.