Ryan Collins, G5

Current Trainee

2020 | 2019 | 2018 | 2017 | 2016 | 2015 | 2014 | 2013 | Alumni


Ryan Collins

Hometown: Etna, NH
Advisor: Mike Talkowski


Your hometown/city/country
I grew up in a small town in central New Hampshire named Etna.


Tell us a bit about yourself.
I have one younger brother and live in Brookline with wife and our dog. I love spending time outdoors by hiking, skiing, running, golfing, and playing other sports.


What is your academic background? What research experience did you have before grad school?
I attended Dartmouth College, where I did research in statistical genetics with Jason Moore (now at UPenn) and graduated in 2013 with a Bachelor's degree in genetics. After graduating, I worked as a computational technician in Mike Talkowski's lab at Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH) and The Broad Institute. I continued to work in the Talkowski lab from 2013 until I joined BIG in 2016. Things were going so well in the Talkowski lab that, after rotating in the MacArthur and Lander labs during my G1 year, I decided to return to Mike's lab for the remainder of my PhD.


What is your research area and why is it exciting?
I am broadly interested in large-scale human genomics, with a focus on the relationship between genome structure and function. The component of my research that excites me the most is its extremely interdisciplinary nature. I have always strived to be a jack of all trades rather than a master of one. My PhD research parallels this notion well: our lab splits time between MGH--a massive hospital--and the Broad--a pure research institute with the feel of a Silicon Valley tech company like Google. On any given day, I might be working on interpreting the functional consequences of genetic variation next-door to a practicing clinician or developing mathematical models and algorithms to analyze petabytes of genomic sequencing data with a team of the Broad's software engineers. This diverse environment means each day brings a new set of questions and challenges, but all of them point towards the horizon of realizing the promises of genomics-driven precision medicine to improve human health.


Why did you choose BIG?
The fields of genomics and bioinformatics are rapidly evolving and expanding. My PI likes to use the analogy that being in genomics in Boston in 2018 is like being in Florence, Italy, during the Renaissance – it’s the hub of all the action at a turning point in human history. The access to the community of peerless genetics, genomics, and informatics experts available in the Boston/Cambridge area through HMS, its teaching hospitals, the Broad, and other affiliated institutions is an invaluable asset for trainees. There isn't a comparable collection of training faculty affiliated through the same (or closely related) institutions anywhere else in the world. The core faculty in BIG are all excellent and having access to the HILS network of hundreds of faculty was another feature of BIG I liked. Finally, the flexible nature of the BIG program—as evinced by the breadth of dissertation topics among current BIG students was a major plus for me.


What was your favorite class and why?
I enjoyed Computational and Functional Genomics (BIOPHYS 205), co-taught by Martha Bulyk, Shamil Sunyaev, and Suzanne Gaudet, which I took during my G1 spring semester (2017). BIOPHYS 205 was a perfect G1 course, as it provided a broad overview of modern genomics: each class would focus on two papers, one of which typically introduced a contemporary technology or computational method, and the other which would demonstrate a practical application of that technology to cutting-edge research. The occasional inclusion of classic papers was a fun way to get acquainted with the historical landmarks of the field. In practical terms, I think internalized the most knowledge from that course that will end up impacting my research or future career among all courses I've taken through BIG.


How do you like living in Boston?  What do you do when you are not working?
Boston is a great mid-sized city for grad student life: it has hints of small-town charm mixed with big-city attractions. Boston's many colleges and universities provide no shortage of activities and events relevant to 20-30 year olds, while the vast suburban areas (including Cambridge) surrounding Boston provide room to breathe and opportunities to escape the concrete jungle. When I'm not doing research, I like to exercise (running along the Charles River Esplanade is a personal favorite), take weekend trips to go hiking/skiing in northern New England, attend Boston sports games (Red Sox/Bruins/Celtics/Patriots), and spend time with family and friends.


What advice would you give to college students who are interested in a PhD in genomics/bioinformatics?

  1. 1. There has been no better time to train in a quantitative or computational discipline. Given the interdisciplinary nature of genomics/bioinformatics (and especially that of the BIG program), the technical skills and experiences students acquire through BIG position them well to lead the coming computational revolution in medicine (and many other fields). It is a safe bet than a PhD in bioinformatics will be a valuable degree in industry, academia, finance, consulting, policy, or any other quantitative career.

  2. 2. A PhD is a professional investment in yourself. Five years is a long time. Most of your time during those five years will be spent doing research, and most of a PhD student's research time is spent troubleshooting and debugging, not churning out glamorous breakthroughs. When considering a PhD, it is critical to write your applications with a clear sense of purpose, and with a deliberate acknowledgement of the requirements and lifestyle doing a PhD entails. Completing a PhD requires vision, dedication, effort, and persistence. That said, doing a PhD has been the most rewarding experience of my professional life thus far. If you are ready for the commitment a PhD requires, I would strongly encourage you to apply, and to apply to BIG! If you're less sure, there are many options to explore the genomics/bioinformatics research world in a lower-stakes environment, such as working as a technician in a lab (e.g. I did this for 3 years prior to BIG), working for a biotech company in an analytical or research role, or entering a 1-2 year Masters program, like our sister Masters of Biomedical Informatics through HMS DBMI.

  3. 3. If you want to know more, reach out to current students! I am always happy to answer questions from prospective BIG applicants: rlcollins [at] g [dot] harvard [dot] edu.

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