Lab Mission Statement

Our lab aims to understand the genetic mechanism of rare diseases that may lead to rational approaches for therapies. We will focus on interpreting non-coding variants and variants of unknown significance to end the diagnostic odyssey for patients. Another focus will be to train the next generation of scientist building an environment that prioritizes research integrity, excellence and teamwork.

As a group leader I no longer have the time to check every little detail of everyone’s work. It’s important then to have a team that I fully trust in terms of honesty and thoroughness. Ethical behavior unfortunately cannot be taught, if you don’t have strong morales, a few multiple choice questions at the end of CITI training is not going to change that! Fortunately, the majority of times honesty is not an issue and it’s rather thoroughness. We will strive to create an open, nurturing and friendly team environment, where members are encouraged to share mistakes, contradictory results, ask dumb questions and ask questions as many times until they do understand.

“Integrity is about doing the right thing and not necessarily the easy thing.”

If you have made it this far in life, you are already gifted but I believe passion, curiosity and getting stuff done are key components in achieving excellence. Passion to me is rushing in first thing in the morning to see if your bacterial transformation worked, it’s working all of Friday night because your sequencing results that you been waiting all week just came in at 4pm and its waking up early in the morning to prepare for a journal club presentation. Curiosity is wanting to know why things didn’t work, breaking things that already work to understand new things and always questioning things. Lastly, excellence in ideas is fantastic but will go to waste if there is no hard work in getting stuff done. This means constantly bugging that collaborator or sale person until they send you what you need, it means writing that manuscript on the weekend when your friends are at Cape Cod, it means coming in the lab on a Sunday afternoon so that your Monday isn’t wasted, it means planning your time carefully so you have something to present at lab meeting or in your meeting with your mentor. I will acknowledge and reward excellent work and show constant gratitude to team members that are busting their ass.

“Excellence is pretending like you are number #2 wanting to get to number #1 … ALL the time!”

Teamwork is not about being around for the good times but it’s being around during the difficult times and doing the little things when no one is looking! This means watching your team mates practice their presentation for the fifth time, it means coming in early in the morning to prep up reagents for a team mates experiment, it means cleaning up a mess that someone left in the lab instead of just reporting it and it means staying up late at night debugging code with a team mate for their analysis. All projects in our lab will be team projects, where each team member can contribute, develop new skills and which we can share the burden and success as a team. Each team member will unambiguously be assigned a role in each project and will play a leadership role in at least one project.

“Ensuring team members are emotionally secure will allow them to fully concentrate on what they do best.”

The focus on integrity, excellence and teamwork was advice from Professor Christopher Semsarian who led an awesome lunchtime mentorship forum with trainees during his visit at the Broad Institute.

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.