Spotlight on James Yurkovich, ISB Translational Research Fellow
Dr. James Yurkovich joined ISB this summer as a Translational Research Fellow. The three-year Translational Research Fellows Program provides a unique opportunity for bench-to-bedside translational research with mentorship from experts in systems biology and clinical research.
Read on for a Q&A with Yurkovich that delves into his research interests, future aspirations, hobbies, and much more.
ISB: How has your experience as a Translational Research Fellow at ISB been so far? What have you learned through your collaborations with Dr. Nathan Price and members of the Hood-Price Lab?
Dr. James Yurkovich: I have thoroughly enjoyed my first few months at ISB and have experienced a welcoming atmosphere that fosters creative thinking and innovative research. Working with Nathan Price and his research group has shown me yet another model of how to do research, something that is invaluable as I start building my own lab. There is an incredible range of expertise within his lab, and it has been great fun so far to sit in meetings and listen to experts in so many different areas think about and discuss the same problem. Sometimes, I’m even able to contribute something intelligent to the conversation myself!
ISB: What projects are you working on?
Yurkovich: One of the most exciting aspects of my faculty fellowship is the opportunity for me to collaborate with anyone and everyone at ISB, which means that a significant amount of my time since my arrival has been spent reading and talking with people. Those discussions have led to several interesting and diverse projects. I am collaborating with Nitin Baliga’s group to examine the metabolic capabilities of Mycoplasma tuberculosis during dormancy and also to investigate the regulation of overflow metabolism of Escherichia coli. I am working with Nathan’s group on several projects: attempting to understand the role of metabolism in Alzheimer’s Disease, developing new methods for the generation of metabolic models across different clades of the phylogenetic tree, learning about the impact of diet and nutrition on the microbiome (in collaboration with Sean Gibbons), and studying scientific wellness using deep-phenotyping (in collaboration with Lee Hood). Of course, my primary goal is to use these projects as stepping stones toward funding opportunities.
ISB: How do you envision your research translating to the clinic or marketplace?
Yurkovich: Even though my undergraduate studies were in electrical engineering from the beginning, the original plan was to pursue medical school. I spent a summer during my undergraduate shadowing a cardiac electrophysiologist and observed many surgeries, which absolutely fascinated me. After getting my first taste of research, however, I shifted my ambitions to graduate school to follow my developing passion for research. But throughout my research career, I have always maintained that desire to study questions related to human health. I envision a future in which I collaborate directly with physicians to practice personalized medicine — using deep-phenotyping data from individuals that can be used to tailor treatments and therapies unique to each person.
ISB: You’ve been to Notre Dame (undergrad), UC San Diego (PhD) and now ISB here in Seattle. How would you describe your experience at ISB compared to your academic years?
Yurkovich: Doing research at ISB is definitely different than my former institutions. The unique environment at ISB captures some of the best qualities of my former institutions (e.g., world-class researchers with diverse backgrounds) while providing a collaborative structure that is difficult to replicate at a large university. The willingness of everyone at ISB — students, staff, scientists, and faculty — to work together to tackle research questions without having to worry about departmental lines or which lab someone is in is truly special.
That being said, I think it is the people who really define a place. As an undergraduate, I was provided exceptional mentorship in research by Professor Sylwia Ptasinska, who helped guide me in my first steps as a researcher and provided me the opportunity to publish as an undergraduate. I could not have asked for a better doctoral adviser than Professor Bernhard Palsson during my time at UCSD. They both taught me so much about so many things — in essence, they taught me how to learn. Here at ISB, I have experienced the same type of thoughtful guidance and mentorship, from Nathan, Lee, Jim Heath, and Nitin to the outstanding postdocs and scientists with whom I work on a daily basis.
ISB: Where do you see yourself in 10 years?
Yurkovich: I am targeting a career in academia as a professor. My dad has been an engineering professor for more than 30 years, and so I have always had an inside look at what that entails, both on the educational side and the research side. Since my early days as a graduate student, I have looked ahead to life as a professor where I can contribute by educating the next generation of scientists and engineers and by answering fundamental questions through my research. Professor Palsson provided me with outstanding opportunities and training in both areas, but he went above and beyond on the educational side of things where I helped him restructure and teach multiple courses at UCSD.
ISB: What do you do when you’re not at ISB? Any hobbies, passions, interests?
Yurkovich: I have played the piano for more than 24 years and love to sit down and let all my thoughts and stress vanish, replaced by some Chopin. Unfortunately I have not lived in Seattle long enough to find a piano to play regularly — I need to get one for my apartment soon!
I also love to read and do my best to read as much as I can. Over the course of my formal education, I recall being constantly astounded by how well read some of my most influential mentors were — in particular, Professor M. Vidyasagar at UT Dallas (I spent a summer studying with his group) and Professor Palsson. I have done my best to follow their example and, building on the liberal arts education provided to me by Notre Dame, try to read books outside my area of research that instead focus on topics like philosophy, sociology and economics.
During graduate school, I started to develop an interest in golf. I’m not very good, but that doesn’t matter — I still enjoy getting out on the course or the range when I can. As I have my entire life, I follow Notre Dame football passionately (perhaps too passionately…?). We just completed our second undefeated season in the last few years, the other being my senior year of undergrad. Go Irish!!
ISB: What is the last book you read?
Yurkovich: I try to discipline myself to alternate between reading novels and nonfiction (although that’s often a losing battle). Over the Thanksgiving holiday, I read Siddhartha Mukherjee’s “The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer,” which was recommended to me by a friend who was assigned to read it for one of her medical school courses. It was both informative and inspiring, providing that ever-necessary reminder that the research we do has the capacity to make a real and lasting impact in people’s lives when we are able to translate it to the clinic. While it was a humbling reminder that the medical problems we seek to overcome are exceedingly complex and require great collaboration across many scientific disciplines, it will also help fuel my passion for searching for answers and solutions to foes like cancer. Before that, I read “Dark Matter” by Blake Crouch, a science fiction novel that examines Robert Frost’s conundrum by asking what might happen if we hadn’t taken the road less traveled.
ISB: Any last thoughts?
Yurkovich: I am excited to start my career at ISB, and I am anxious to meet more and more people along the way as I continue to learn and contribute to the fantastic research taking place here.