Member Spotlight: Richard Y. Zhao

1.    Name and affiliation:                
Richard Y. Zhao, M.S., Ph.D., FAAM
University of Maryland School of Medicine, Baltimore
University of Maryland Medical Center

2.    What is your professional title?
Professor of Pathology, Microbiology-Immunology, Human Virology and Global Health
Division Head of Molecular Pathology, Department of Pathology
Founding Director, Translational Genomics Laboratory
Marlene and Stewart Greenebaum Comprehensive Cancer Center
University of Maryland School of Medicine
Director, Molecular Diagnostics Laboratory, University of Maryland Medical Center

3.    How did you decide to enter the field/what (or who) brought you into the field?
It was an accidental encounter, or should I say that I was destined to become a molecular pathologist. That was in 1993, I was doing basic science research as a Research Associate Scientist in the rank of Research Assistant Professor at College of Physicians and Surgeons, Columbia University in New York City. For personal reasons, I needed moving to Chicago where I could join my family. I started to apply for a faculty position in the Chicago area with the hope to continue my basic science research. However, the competition was so fierce that I did not even landed a single interview after more than six months. I became so desperate that I started to consider applying for a teaching job in a community college. One day, I was in the Columbia medical school library, I spotted a new book on the shelf with the title of “Diagnostic Molecular Microbiology: Principles and Applications” authored by David H. Persing. I believe it was just published and one of the very first books describing gene-based diagnostics. I scanned over the book. It was a collection of PCR-based protocols to detect various clinically important pathogens. Trained as a molecular biologist, I was familiar with PCR technology. I thought to myself that I could easily do this in a hospital setting.  So, I revised my CV and sent it to all the major hospitals in the Chicago area and told them that I could help them setting up a molecular diagnostic laboratory for PCR-based clinical testing. Suddenly, I became a hot commodity and received numerous interviews and offers within a very short time period. I decided to join Chicago Children’s Memorial Hospital and Northwestern University Medical School where I later established two molecular diagnostics laboratories.  The rest is history.

4.    What do you do?  How would you describe your role?
I consider myself as a clinician scientist, i.e. a hybrid between a basic scientist and a clinical practitioner. Because I love science, after I established the first Molecular Diagnostics Laboratory at Chicago Children’s, I can’t help myself but to apply for basic science research grants.  Luckily, I received a NIH R29 grant and an American Cancer Society grant upon the very first try (note: I have never had that luck afterward!). As the result, I spent part of my time running a clinical molecular diagnostic laboratory in the hospital; the other time working on basic science research in medical school. I have since kept the same role as a clinician scientist in Chicago and now in Baltimore.

5.    What degree(s) and/or training did you receive to achieve your position?
I received a B.S. degree in biology, M.S. degree in genetics and Ph.D. in molecular biology. When I was in graduate school, I took a graduate molecular biology class in 1984 and used the inaugural edition of Benjamin Lewin’s “Genes” as the textbook. Felt in love at first sight, molecular biology has since become my passion that was later extended to molecular pathology.  

6.     What is the greatest challenge you face in your work?
In the early days, the greatest challenge was to tell people what I do for a living in hospital and what gene-based diagnostics is. Thanks to the long-running TV series “Law & Order” and now owing to the ongoing SARS-CoV-2/COVID-19 pandemic, everyone knows what PCR is.

7.    What is the best part of your work as you see it? (most interesting, most fun…)
It is the gratification of knowing what I do every day makes a difference in patient care.

8.    Optional follow up question - what do you do for fun?
I like international travel to meet people of diverse cultures and to enjoy different parts of the world. Wherever I go, I always try to enjoy local and various ethnic cuisines. Sometimes I write food critiques and reviews. My online reviews on restaurant foods have so far been read more than one million times.    


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