A Conversation with EIPM’s Kenneth Eng
We are pleased to introduce you to Kenneth Eng, a Research Associate at the Englander Institute for Precision Medicine (EIPM). Ken earned his master’s degree here at Weill Cornell Medical College and spent the next seven years at the EIPM, growing his skills and taking on additional responsibilities in helping to grow the department’s computational team.
Ken has a very interesting perspective on working at the EIPM and at Weill Cornell Medicine. We hope you enjoy learning more about him and his research interests, and how the Covid-19 pandemic has affected him.
Can you tell us about your work?
I lead the development of bioinformatics pipelines, with the goal of helping support the research and clinical activities that our group undertakes.
Most of our projects involve interacting with multiple teams, which can present challenges. For example, our team primarily focuses on obtaining information or data, and interacting with colleagues to understand what analyses is required and how that analyses might inform future steps in that project. Communicating and empathizing with other teams and groups to identify the best solutions we can deliver is a challenge, but paramount when we’re juggling multiple projects simultaneously.
What kind of technology do you use in your work?
Some of the technology we use are tools like Docker, the Cloud, and HPC. These computational tools allow us to basically run any pipeline we develop for any project we need. In terms of collaboration we use Microsoft Teams, DropBox, GitLab and GitHub. We use those quite a bit in our various projects.
How does your work fit into the EIPM Computational Team?
I wear a couple different hats, but my main focus is to help build-out our group by hiring, mentoring, and developing, our junior members. This is really important since, at the end of the day, our group’s overall job is to help aggregate data and derive insight to a wide audience which takes a diverse perspective and a lot of human-power. Additionally, I’m still very hands-on with the development of any whole exome (WES) or whole genome (WGS) analyses projects.
It’s important to keep the focus on using our tools to embrace new and existing technology to leverage all of this data into something that is clinically actionable. For example, over the past few years we have been able to launch clinical genomic tests that are used by a lot of the physicians at NewYork-Presbyterian (NY-P), and we want to continue doing that and to expanding these tools.
On a more technical side, we develop pipelines for our various projects. Developing the analyses required for each project is key, and learning from past projects and from other groups to inform future projects is a big part of our job.
What are some of the strengths of your team, and how unique is that to Weill Cornell Medicine?
We are very well-rounded. Our main strength is our ability to interface with teams of various backgrounds to add value to any project. We interact with diverse groups like pathologists, clinicians, and other researchers and computational groups. We also interact a lot with vendors who are developing new tools and technologies to improve research that leads to better patient outcomes. And this is very much a two-way street; we learn about the latest available technologies, and we give feedback on our experience with new tools so future versions are more accurate and responsive.
What makes the Englander Institute for Precision Medicine a special place to work?
The opportunity to work with people from a wide variety of technical backgrounds makes it unique and special.
A lot of the people who start their careers here have chosen to stay and grow their skills and build their careers at the EIPM. We have the luxury of very low staff turnover, which is really important for team stability. I’ve seen the enthusiasm of younger staff members grow, the fire remains in their eyes as they push themselves and each other to do more. I think that’s very rare to see in any organization.
Have you had the chance to mentor students?
Yes, I’ve been able to mentor students and interns, and I really enjoy it. The whole process of mentoring and supervising reinforces the idea that the work we do is a team sport. A lot of people come to us with different skills sets and getting them up-to-speed and finding out how to best motivate them and tap into their interests and abilities is critical to their success and to ours.
You earned your Masters in Physiology and Biophysics here at Weill Cornell Medical College and you’ve spent your last seven years at Weill Cornell Medicine. What about studying and working here resonates with you?
I think it comes back to why I went to grad school in the first place, and the type of experience I was looking for.
What drew me here was the environment itself. It’s very stimulating, with all that WCM and NY-P have to offer, along with Cornell Tech, Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, Rockefeller University, the Hospital for Special Surgery, etc. There are many joint research programs and lectures that provide opportunities to learn from world-class leaders in science, health and medicine.
Additionally, what’s kept me here has been my relationship with EIPM Director Olivier Elemento, Ph.D., who got me—and everyone else—very excited about his vision of precision medicine. Working alongside Olivier and Andrea Sboner, Ph.D., the EIPM’s Director of Informatics and Computational Biology, has been very fruitful. Additionally, getting to know the work of very talented faculty members in the ICB like Drs. Chris Mason, Marcin Imielinski, and Iman Hajirasouliha, and many others has been very rewarding.
The novelty of working here was a real draw. Before coming to the EIPM I was involved in a research project modeling individual cardiac cells, and that required a very different skill set than what I’d need to be successful at the EIPM. Getting immersed in something brand new was intoxicating. Early on in my time at the EIPM we would generate results in text files and build reports or slide decks. But that data was very tangible and patient-related. I enjoy the continual journey to integrate data, insight, and intuition to benefit patients.
In your WCM bio you write: “Every patient should feel like they have the most qualified team of health care professionals helping them to combat cancer.” Why is that important to you?
We all have family members and friends who have been touched by cancer and other serious diseases. When you talk to people actively dealing with these challenges you can see how confusing and frustrating the experience can be. I’m happy to be part of a group that is changing and improving those experiences.
I feel like we’re very fortunate to be at the EIPM helping to create these important changes and advances. And it’s worth noting that Weill Cornell Medicine has really embraced an interdisciplinary approach to patient care. It’s satisfying to be part of those positive changes from the inside.
Did you have a mentor at WCM?
I found fantastic mentors in Olivier and Andrea. They really helped support me when the department was so new and there were just a few employees. There was a lot of responsibility on our shoulders, and they helped every step of the way. From motivating with praise, identifying and implementing tools and technologies that would help us scale, to encouraging me to take on the challenges of building and scaling the projects and group that would help make our group successful in completing current projects and successful in the future.
What do you want to be doing in five years?
That’s a good question, and difficult to answer. Five years ago I couldn’t have predicted how advanced the technology that I work with would become today. I would like to continue our groups’ journey to enable every group across the EIPM to get insight from some combination of internal and external data sets. We will have to find ways to democratize data collection, data labeling, data processing, data visualization, and insight review across all groups in the EIPM. So far we have only scratched the surface of this journey.
How has the COVID-19 pandemic affected you personally and professionally?
What do you like to do when you’re not working?
I listen to a lot of podcasts and I read a lot of biographies, especially about athletes, politicians and business leaders. Some of my favorite podcasts right now are the Artificial Intelligence podcast by Lex Friedman, the Bill Simmons Podcast, and Not So Standard Deviations by Hilary Parker and Roger Peng just to name a few. I also love to cook, I find it really relaxing to craft something by hand. I’ve also been binging on the second season of Miracle Workers, which is a fascinating show.
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