The journey so far – Part 1

On Friday night 9th of June 2017, I signed an offer to become an Assistant Professor of Genetics at Yale School of Medicine. This completed a 13 year journey from leaving my job at IBM in 2004, a few years after receiving a diagnosis of muscular dystrophy to leading my own research group. I was really excited that weekend and created the Lek lab wordpress website but procrastinated on what would be my first post. Many possibilities came to mind such as something about science, future plans, my shameless love for 90s diva music, cool PS4 games I want to buy this summer, etc. Anything cooler than my first lame post on BioLektures as a graduate student!

I decided to write my first blog on the journey so far such that prospective team members will know the non-traditional mountain that I have climbed to get here and the wonderful view and journey ahead. This will be a three part blog broken up into my diagnostic odyssey, research in Australia and then in Boston.

Not many people know that my parents and my six siblings came to Australia as Cambodian refugees with nothing but the clothes we were wearing. I was the youngest of the seven children. During my childhood, I didn’t have much and grew up in a working class suburb of Sydney and was extremely grateful that we had a house, food, free public education and health care. Growing up in a big family you learned how to share, big time! I had to share the bedroom with five other siblings and it kinda sucked most of the time. Coming from such a humble childhood, words like entitlement and luxury were replaced with gratitude, hard work and persistence. My parents wanted my brothers and sisters to live the “Cambodian dream” and that is to study hard, get a good job, get a house and have kids! Lolz this youtube video quite sums up my childhood.

In high school, I had a fantastic mathematics teacher and actually was my only math teacher for all 6 years! He showed me effective communication, empathy and caring were far more important qualities than mere intelligence. His confidence and belief in me removed a lot of the boundaries I set myself growing up poor and made me reach for much higher goals.

After graduating with a Computer Engineering degree, I joined IBM Australia and enjoyed intellectual freedom, which is very unusual for IT but I was very proactive in looking for opportunities to improve and develop new things. I had awesome team mates that taught the young me, a lot about office politics and collaboration. The CEO (who was responsible for all IT during the Sydney Olympic games) gave a very memorable Annual Meeting address that I still remember and apply today. He touched on three things that had made him successful. (1) Learn to filter out noise and focus (2) Know what’s worth fighting for (3) Forgiveness is easier to ask than permission!

Towards the end of University and during my time at IBM, I had this nagging dull muscle pain and fatigue particularly at the end of a long day. I was beginning to struggle going up stairs and started to lose balance easily. I visited a few medical doctors and many didn’t think much as I was young and thought it would go away. I went to doctors off and on as it wasn’t important at the time and I really didn’t want to believe that there was something wrong with me. Finally a doctor ordered a blood test looking at my Creatine Kinase (CK) levels, an indicator for muscle damage (CK is a high abundance protein in muscle that leaks into the blood stream when muscle is damaged). My CK levels were really high and he concluded that there was something seriously wrong with my muscles as I confirmed I hadn’t run a marathon or anything similar prior to the test.

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