Fellows Feature: Solomon Endlich

Solomon Endlich 174_ForWeb

Solomon Endlich is a CEHG postdoctoral fellow in the Gill Bejerano lab. He received his PhD in theoretical physics at Columbia University and has held postdoctoral positions at the École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne and the Stanford Institute for Theoretical Physics. 

Can you tell us a bit about yourself, personally and professionally?

As a clear romantic, I am daily struck by the wonder of the natural world; I am overwhelmed with its majesty, its beauty, and its kaleidoscope of forms. These inspirational feelings have led me to focus my life on exploring it, intellectually and physically. From physics to biology, and from catching lizards in the backyard to performing technical scuba dives in the mighty Pacific, the narrative has pretty much stayed the same — there is always more to learn and always new things to explore.

This lifestyle has it drawbacks, of course. My garage looks like the used section of some kind of super outdoor shop; bags of ropes compete for space with drysuits and scuba tanks, while backcountry skis and outrageous winter camping gear try to stay relevant during the hot California summer months. Meanwhile, my strange (and large) book collection makes moving a huge pain. But what would I do without Lalli and Gilmer’s Pelagic Snails, or Munk and MacDonald’s The Rotation of the Earth – A Geophysical Discussion?

How did you end up here? What first got you interested in genetics and science?

It is amazing working everyday at Stanford. I was born just across the Bay and always dreamed of being a scientist in a university. So everyday, walking into the lab feels like a dream come true.

I was born in Berkeley and raised in nearby beautiful Sonoma County. I was always romping around the forests or catching insects or reading books about sharks. To me, it was clear that I had to be a scientist, but it was not so clear what that actually meant or how one does that. My family are creatives (artists, designers) and I always felt a little bit like the black sheep. Lucky for me, I somehow found the right books to read and had the right teachers who encouraged me. I was directed to Jacques Cousteau, Richard Feynman, Carl Sagan, and Charles Darwin, and found my people.

Intellectually, I was always drawn to fundamental principles as opposed to collections of facts. I wanted to know the key features that united disparate phenomena. I was interested in *why* things worked the way they do. This led me down the rabbit hole of mathematical physics, where I then spent a solid portion of my adult life. Quantum Mechanics and General Relativity. Statistical Mechanics and Fluid Dynamics. Cosmology and Astrophysics. That rigorous quantitative experience gave me a new set of eyes that saw the world so differently then when I was a boy.

After my PhD and a few years as a postdoc, I felt like some of the excitement was gone. I wanted to be where discoveries did not happen on a decade-long time scale. I rekindled my love of the life sciences and found a calling in genomics. It had the fundamental nature (they are the instructions — the rules — that ultimately govern organisms) that I so enjoyed, but also a pace of discovery that I could only dream about. At the risk of being too bold, I knew immediately: “This is where the action is!”

Can you tell us about your current research and what you hope to achieve with it?

My current research has shifted quite a bit since I began my fellowship. Frustrated with the quality of the various vertebrate genome assemblies, I became more and more interested in all the missing pieces (and there are many!). What is lurking in uncharted territory? Entranced, I pivoted towards an ambitious new goal: sequence the unsequencable and *fully* map out the most important genomes. I told myself: “Since I am giving this genomics thing a try, why not pick a really audacious goal?”

It turns out that to some people, it may be too audacious. In the initial stages, I discussed my intentions with some visiting senior researchers and they kindly suggested I lower my sights and work on something more practical and secure for my career. Needless to say, I didn’t listen and, in fact, felt even more motivated.

The plan involves a combination of molecular biology and computational techniques (which I will not get into the details here) that, *if* they work, could be absolutely transformative for the field. To this end, I have been toiling away in the lab for the last 8 months to optimize the protocols and demonstrate a solid proof of principle. So far, I have had very encouraging data! Computational results indicate that the idea in question will, as hoped, give us an advantage over standard sequencing experiments, and the lab work has demonstrated that the needed chemistry can operate as needed.

At this point, all that is needed is to put the pieces together and see how much of an improvement we can really make. Even a partial success will then allow us to see genomes in more detail then we have ever before.

Were there people (or one person) in particular to whom you would attribute your professional success?

There are so many. As I mentioned before, I received a lot of support from my early teachers. Looking back, it seems incredible that a few kind words said at the right time can have such a big impact. [Thank you Dr. Karen Frindell, Mr. G, and Mr. Lee. Don’t know where I would be without you.] Years later, my close colleagues in physics very much shaped my attitudes and intuition: Alberto Nicolis, Riccardo Penco, and Rachel Rosen. They are all incredible scientists and have been role models for years.

More currently, the environment at Stanford has let me explore far outside my initial lab space. In the early stages of this project, I found Dr. Ashby Morrison in Biology and she opened her door to me to work on some “crazy” ideas. Without her, I am not sure this project would ever have gotten off the ground. There is also a whole list of students and postdocs who have been of invaluable help; Stanford has such an incredible pool of talent and energy!

Can you speak a bit to the role you see CEHG playing on Stanford campus?

Institutions like CEHG are absolutely vital to science at Stanford. The most interesting things happening are usually at the intersection of disparate fields. Almost by definition, if something has not been discovered, there can be no “department” of it. And in the same vein, many of the groundbreaking experiments and analyses in a given field often require assistance from other fields for their execution. Take, for instance, the human genome project: it was clearly a biology project, but one that took an enormous amount of molecular biology, engineering, and computer science expertise to bring to fruition. And institutions like CEHG set just such a tone and encourage scientists to stretch their research programs beyond the comfortable boundaries of their own disciplines.

And for me personally, CEHG gave me the freedom to search out an interdisciplinary opportunity and to collaborate with scientists whose expertise could compliment my own. So far, it has worked incredibly well.

What are your future plans? Where do you see yourself professionally in the next 5 or 10 years?

If all goes well, I see myself doing research daily. Working with a team of people whose different areas of expertise illuminate the complex and many faceted problems of modern biology. But I also see myself interacting extensively with the public and the larger scientific community. As scientists, we can’t simply expect people to see the value in our work and support us in kind. I see myself engaged in this discussion, as well as working to inspire and support the next generation of inquisitive minds.

What advice would you offer to other grad students or postdocs who are considering pursuing a similar educational and career path as you? 

  • Keep your education general. You can spend a lifetime learning all the things that *could* be useful at sometime or another. Instead, focus on the problem that you want to solve and you can learn the appropriate tools as you need them.
  • Talk to people. They often know a lot more then you and can point you in the right direction. A couple conversations with the right minds can save you months of work.
  • Work with people you like and get along with, scientifically and emotionally. We all take our work very personally (I know I do). Having colleagues that you are on the same wavelength with, and whose company you enjoy, will greatly improve the experience and ultimately make your work easier and better.

Tell us what you do when you aren’t working on research. Do you have hobbies? Special talents? Other passions besides science?

Too many hobbies actually. I may have to start making some hard choices! I participate in lots of outdoor activities, the more “adventure-y” the better: rock climbing (personal goal: climb “The Nose”); backcountry skiing (it is like winter hiking, but with a cherry on top); scuba diving (most recently, I have been trained to use a rebreather); fly fishing; and cycling. These go a long way toward scratching the adventure/explorer itch, especially when you share the experience with friends.

On the creative side, I have recently picked up ceramics, which has been a wonderful way to slow down an otherwise overactive mind. Very meditative, with the side benefit of being great for gift giving.

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