This neuroscientist joined UNLV to discover how DNA contributes to disease development or prevention.
“Two roads diverged in a wood, and I — I took the one less traveled by…” When it comes to Edwin Oh, associate professor in UNLV’s School of Medicine and the Nevada Institute of Personalized Medicine (NIPM), the lines from the famous Robert Frost poem “The Road Not Taken” could just as easily evoke the path he chose in life as they do the subject he studies: those two winding backbones of DNA, tentatively held together by microscopic base pairs. Oh joined UNLV to help us understand how divergence in our DNA gives rise to disease or, conversely, a resistance to particular illnesses.
I was interviewing at several universities, and what got my attention at UNLV was the development of the School of Medicine and the push toward understanding how personalized medicine could help diagnose and treat various disorders. I want to better understand how changes in DNA and certain DNA sequences might give rise to disease conditions or, conversely, to a more beneficial, stronger, protective environment in human beings. I wanted to be in a position and at a university that put me, as a researcher, at the forefront of this field. I believe UNLV is that place.
What about UNLV strikes you as different from other places you’ve worked?
Here at UNLV, I’ve been given the opportunity to work with medical students as well as undergraduate students. UNLV has a significant advantage when it comes to conducting research because of its undergraduates. The experience of working with them has helped me better understand what research might be more relevant to people today.
For instance, we know that stress can cause certain modifications to DNA, and there are certain individuals in more stressful situations who have more modifications as a result. Wouldn’t it be fascinating, as an example, if students provided DNA at the beginning of their studies and provided DNA again before graduation so we could get a better sense of how stress — in this case, educationally and culturally induced during adolescence — can influence success rates? Certain stressors during this time period can lead to neuropsychiatric conditions, so if we could better understand how some of these modifications are occurring, we could also obtain better predictors for those conditions.
What inspired you to get into your field?
For me, it was like a sport. You end up in basketball because you enjoy it or you’re good at it. Over time, I discovered I really enjoyed genomics and medicine, and I also felt a strong connection to the field. It was a profession that I didn’t wake up and dread doing every day, so it felt natural to push forward with this work.
What’s the biggest misconception about your field?
The biggest misconception we all had for the longest time was that none of this could be done. Getting DNA sequences from every living human being was thought to be infeasible. But within the next 10 years or so, all of us are going to have the coding regions of our genes sequenced, which will open the doors to a ton of information about our individual selves, though we might not know what some of it means. This sequencing is starting to happen whether we like it or not, which now makes it a question of, “What are we going to do with this information?”
Ethically, it’s a rich area of discussion that nobody has the answers for at this point. If you know I’m going to have Alzheimer’s by the time I’m 45, chances are you’re not going to want to hire me. Only by sequencing more and more people are we in a better position to say precisely that if you have this genetic change, you’ll probably get condition X by age X. We’re nowhere close to that right now, but we should keep advancing this research and start these important discussions now.
Finish this sentence: “If I couldn’t work in my current field, I’d like to…”
I’d like to work at UNICEF and grow some of its vaccination programs in third-world countries. I went to Nepal a year ago and participated in these vaccination efforts. A lot of the time, the money that goes to these countries doesn’t go to health care, unfortunately. I’d like to be involved in making better health care in these countries a reality.
Where did you grow up?
I grew up all over the world. My parents worked in foreign affairs, so I started off in the UK, then the USSR. Then I moved to New Zealand, the Philippines, Indonesia, Singapore, and then the U.S. For the last 20 years or so, I’ve been moving to a progressively warmer climate — from Michigan to Baltimore to North Carolina to Las Vegas.
Tell us about a time in your life when you have been daring.
I was in the (Singaporean) Army for a few years, and during that time it was important to learn how to follow instructions. It was also important to know how to be a good soldier and challenge authority when it was the right thing to do. Saying “no” to someone of higher rank than me was not always conventional, but doing so in the appropriate circumstance made me a better person.
What is the proudest moment in your life?
My proudest moment was being in the position to accept this role at UNLV. This job is a privilege and has given me the opportunity to do things that I really want to do with my life — that is, the genomic diagnosis of people with neurological disorders.
What can’t you work without?
I wouldn’t be able to work without the collaborative faculty and research staff here at UNLV. The folks in the lab drive so much research. Without them, nothing would move forward. Without them, there is no research — only ideas.
Tell us about an object in your office that has significance for you and why.
I have a small painting in my office that depicts trees with a road going through them. It’s based off of Robert Frost’s poem “The Road Not Taken.” I feel that some of my choices in life have led me down that road less traveled. I chose to pursue the road to academia despite the odds and have never regretted it.