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Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine
Research

Student Q&A: Warren McGee, Medical Scientist Training Program

Warren McGee

Warren McGee, a eighth-year student in the Medical Scientist Training Program (MSTP), investigates improving RNA-Sequencing data analysis in the laboratory of Jane Wu, MD, PhD, a professor of Neurology and the Dr. Charles L. Mix Research Professor of Neurology and Psychiatry.

Where is your hometown?

My family moved around quite a bit while I was growing up. I lived in West Virginia for most of my childhood but spent time in Evanston and California before that. In high school, my family moved to Western Springs, a suburb west of Chicago. My family has lived there ever since. Despite all of the moving, I consider greater Chicagoland area to be my home.

What are your research interests?
I am primarily interested in the interface between bioinformatics and molecular biology. Bioinformatics (the “dry lab”) provides powerful ways to sift through large amounts of data and identify pathways or genes that are likely to be critical for many important questions, including (A) understanding the pathogenesis of a disease, (B) predicting the treatment response or prognosis of a patient, or (C) predicting which patients might be at risk for a disease.

Ultimately, though, bioinformatics tools can only provide predictions — and all predictions need to be tested against reality. This is where molecular biology and other “wet lab” disciplines can help see which predictions hold up and which require further refinement. Physician-scientists tend to operate in a cycle of “bedside-to-bench” and “bench-to-bedside”; they allow clinical observations to drive important research questions. These, in turn, generate new discoveries that improve patient care. Similarly, I’m interested in the “computer-to-bench” and “bench-to-computer” cycle: allowing new predictions from bioinformatics to drive new discoveries at the bench, and conversely allowing new methods and discoveries at the bench to drive innovation with bioinformatics methods.

What exciting projects are you working on?

My most exciting work has been related to improving how we analyze RNA-Sequencing (RNA-Seq) data. This work came as a direct result of the “bench-to-computer-to-bench” cycle. The bioinformatics field tends to think of RNA-Seq data as “count data” (e.g. this much of gene one, this much of gene two, etc.), when in reality it is “compositional data,” where the units are percentages and the only information available is relative (e.g. this percent of gene one, this percent of gene one, etc.). This has important implications for interpreting the results that come from RNA-Seq experiments, with current methods producing potentially misleading results, sometimes dramatically so. Our work advocates for broader adoption of using "exogenous spike-in” RNAs as a way to normalize data, allowing for an “apples-to-apples” comparison across samples.

Much of the remaining work I’ve been doing in the lab is applying this new RNA-Seq analysis method to our own datasets and the datasets of others, and bringing the new insights it reveals to the bench for validation.

What attracted you to the MD/PhD program? 

I have been interested in medicine since I was a kid; I honestly had “cancer researcher” as a potential career in a fifth-grade autobiography project. In college, while I was discerning whether medicine would be my career, I was given my first opportunity to do research in a lab. I absolutely loved the discovery process! As I progressed, I noticed a clear dichotomy between the clinical world and the research world, and felt at the time that I would have to choose one or the other. In the midst of this, I was introduced to the MD/PhD program as a possibility. Why choose one, when you can pursue both? After having gone through a large portion of my training, it is clear that MD/PhD-trained physician-scientists are unique chimeras — not fully in the clinical world or the research world, but a hybrid of both and serving as a bridge between.

Why Northwestern? Quite simply, I knew the research and clinical training here would be top-notch. I was also attracted to the philosophy of a team-based approach to medicine, and the value of collaboration fostered by the graduate school. In addition, I’ve been especially grateful to have my immediate family close by during my MD/PhD training, and this was an important consideration when I was deciding where to train. 

What has been your best experience at Feinberg?

Over my many years at Feinberg, the best experience has been witnessing the chain of mentorship and cooperation among students. I have received outstanding mentorship from faculty and students further along in their journey. I, in turn, have been blessed to have opportunities to mentor students who are earlier on in their training, whether through review sessions, tutoring or just conversations. In addition, a core value of the Feinberg curriculum related to the team-based philosophy is fostering cooperation among the students. I have lost track of the number of times students have invested many hours into developing a study resource that they then freely share with their classmates. This is teamwork at its finest.

How would you describe the faculty at Feinberg? 

Similar to above, I have universally found the faculty at Feinberg open to mentorship and collaboration. It is truly wonderful to see time and again that when you cold-call (or “cold-email”) a Feinberg faculty member asking for help, how willing they are to lend support and mentorship. This is also seen in how approachable faculty members are when you see them at conferences or at on-campus lectures.

What do you do in your free time?
I consider my Catholic faith to be an essential component of my life, both inside and outside of the lab. I am heavily involved in the religious and social activities at my church, and have recently begun to practice meditation. I am a classically-trained pianist and enjoy playing music for myself and others. I also enjoy a good book, either fiction or non-fiction. For exercise, I really enjoy riding a bike and playing sports. Otherwise, you can find me enjoying all of the cultural and food treasures that Chicago has to offer (art, music, comedy, museums, architecture), especially the free opportunities during the summer.

What are your plans for after graduation?

I am just finishing my PhD, so I have two more years of medical school to complete. I am in the process of discerning what specialty to pursue, but I know for certain that I want to bring my status as a bridge between the clinical and research worlds, and between the dry lab and wet lab worlds, to bear on pursing the dream of “precision medicine”: giving each patient the best care possible for them as an individual.