Editor’s note: The Press conducts email interviews from time to time with White Bear grads doing interesting things in places near and far.
Name: Nicholas Warren, Ph.D.
Hometown: Vadnais Heights
• White Bear Lake Area High School Class of 2009
• University of Wisconsin – Eau Claire Class of 2013 (B.S. in biochemistry/molecular biology)
• Dartmouth College Class of 2019 (Ph.D. in cancer biology and pharmacology)
Current location: New Hampshire
Quick bio: Dr. Nicholas Warren grew up in Vadnais Heights with his mother Michele, father Michael and sister Amy. While at UW-Eau Claire, he started a research career in material science and biophysical chemistry and also researched diabetes at the Mayo Clinic. Dr. Warren recently graduated with a Ph.D. from Dartmouth College, where he was selected to speak on behalf of the graduating class. His dissertation focused on developing new cancer treatments. He has also been active in science advocacy and hopes to pursue a career in health care policy.
Q: How might fellow WBLAHS grads remember you?
I was a bit geeky and involved in a lot of extracurricular programs: Math Team, National Honor Society, Rotary Campus Ambassadors, trap shooting team and JV tennis. People may remember me most from helping start up the recycling program at the school, or perhaps my Spanish class nickname, “Felipe.”
Q: Is this what you wanted to do growing up? Did you want to be a cancer scientist?
I wanted to research cancer, because it has significantly impacted my family. During my sophomore year in high school, my grandmother Audrey suffered from a mysterious and painful illness with few answers and no effective treatments. She ended up in the intensive care unit of a local hospital because she was having difficulty breathing. Five days before she passed, we found out that the fluid in her lungs contained cancer cells, which had spread from her pancreas. I decided then that I wanted to research cancer so that other families might be spared the pain that ours endured.
During my Ph.D. studies, my uncle Bill (former assistant principal of Stillwater High School) was diagnosed with advanced prostate cancer. He courageously fought the disease for two years, and even tried cutting-edge therapies. Eventually, cancer won that battle as well.
I think it is a sign of a healthy and complex society that it was possible for me to help develop more treatment options for a disease that has had such a profound impact on my family.
Q: What were your favorite subjects in school? Did your White Bear education set you upon this career path?
White Bear Lake definitely set me up for success as a scientist. I had many wonderful teachers in every subject and can’t possibly mention all of them. My seventh grade math teacher and middle school math team coach, Mr. Ostlund, had a particularly profound influence on my education. His class was my first introduction to graphing calculators, which helped me write math programs to help do my homework and math competitions more quickly. Being on the math team also helped me see that there is often more than one way to arrive at a right answer. This way of thinking has been very helpful as a scientist.
I also received a great foundation in human anatomy, chemistry and biochemistry from Mr. Christensen. His classes were notoriously challenging, but I think that was what made it so intellectually stimulating for me and helped me excel in college. His teaching style in biochemistry also helped develop critical thinking skills useful for my career. He often gave us a starting molecule and a final molecule, and our assignment was to figure out how to get from start to finish. This helped me figure out what happened during experiments if I found something unexpected.
Q: What are your plans now that you’ve received your Ph.D.?
I am interested in a career in health care/science policy and currently in the job market. This is a hot field right now because there is a huge push to modernize health care to create more personalized treatment options, and both major political parties see health care policy as a core issue. During my Ph.D. studies, I led a graduate student organization that examined the influence science and policy have on each other. Science is ultimately the best system humans have devised to understand the reality of our world. The best medical advice is based on tested facts and solid evidence, and I believe our policies should as well. I think there is a lot of room to help improve the quality of life for average Americans by switching from academic research to policy.
Q: What has been most rewarding about your career path to date and what has been most challenging?
Discovering new and impactful things for cancer research was a huge reward itself. There is sense of euphoria when you make a major breakthrough, but the flip side can also be difficult to deal with when progress lacks. The majority of academic research is a marathon of learning new techniques and troubleshooting problems. Breakthroughs happen in short bursts, but this is due to the nature of trying to answer questions nobody else has ever asked before. During a Ph.D., you become an expert on an extremely specific topic and contribute new knowledge to our society. I thought it was also very rewarding sharing my discoveries at conferences and by publishing scientific papers.
Q: Do you hope to find a cure for cancer?
I don’t think there will ever be a single cure for cancer. “Cancer” is really thousands of different diseases that must be treated differently. By its very nature, cancer finds ways to resist new treatments. However, there has been a lot of progress lately in cancer treatment with the new class of immunotherapy drugs that have been curing some patients. Most notably, former President Jimmy Carter was cured of advanced melanoma with a new immunotherapy. However, only a minority of patients see any benefit from immunotherapy, and it costs over $100,000 for a full course of treatment. My dissertation investigated how another new class of drugs that prevent repair of damaged DNA, kill cancer cells in petri dishes; I think DNA repair inhibitors have a lot of potential as well, but we will have to see how the clinical trials turn out.
Q: Why were you selected to speak to your graduating class?
I was honored to be selected by the administrators of the Guarini School of Graduate and Advanced Studies. I think they appreciated my dedication to the graduate community through service on the Graduate Student Council and leading a graduate student organization. These experiences also helped me develop public speaking and leadership skills. My speech focused on how scientists make society healthier and more complex. I was inspired by the book “The Evolving Self” by psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi.
Q: What do you like to do when you’re not working?
I like to be in nature. Growing up in a fishing family and participating in the Boy Scouts of America gave me a huge appreciation for the outdoors. In New Hampshire, I have spent as much time as possible in the forests and mountains, whether it was skiing, camping, hiking, or floating down a mountain stream in an inner tube.
Q: You do advocacy work — testified to Congress?
Certainly! I think more people should try to get involved in some form of civic engagement. Voting is the best way to make your voice heard in terms of changing power structures, but our representatives always want more input on the specifics. It can be as simple as giving them a quick call or email that you support/oppose a specific policy or statement they made.
My advocacy focused on promoting the benefits of investing in science: it boosts our economy by inventing new technologies and improves quality of life by creating solutions to society’s greatest problems. I had a lot of help and training from Dartmouth, the National Science Policy Network, and the American Society for Pharmacology and Experimental Therapeutics. Between 2003 and 2015, federal science funding remained stagnant but, due to inflation, lost over 20% of its buying power. Universities across the country, including Dartmouth, were laying off scientists who couldn’t find federal research grants to keep their laboratories open. My program lost a significant number of professors when I was halfway through and could no longer offer my favorite class to younger graduate students. President Trump has been proposing significant cuts to science funding, but Congress has fortunately had bipartisan support for increasing science funding in the last two budgets.
Q: Do your parents still live in Vadnais Heights? How often do you get back?
Yes, my parents still live in Vadnais Heights. During grad school I tried to make it back once or twice a year, the demands of research and the remote location in rural New Hampshire made it difficult to get away. My wife and I even braved the 24-hour winter drive a few times to make it home for Christmas. My family also visited us out in New Hampshire a few times; it was great to share this gorgeous area with them.
Q: Do you miss anything about White Bear Lake or Minnesota?
The fishing for sure. You really can’t beat the Boundary Waters in terms of fishing. Especially with family. While the health care policy jobs are far more abundant in Washington, D.C., at least there are a few nearby major airports so traveling home will be easier.
Q: Do you have advice for area students considering a career in biomedical research?
It is a challenging but rewarding career path. I would recommend interested high school students look at universities with a focus on undergraduate education and especially undergraduate research. I thought UW-Eau Claire was great for this. High-quality research experience during or right after undergraduate studies is arguably the most important aspect of applying to graduate programs. Research experience before graduate school also helps with figuring out if it is worth committing to a challenging 5-7 years of your young adult life.
Also, most biomedical research jobs in Minnesota tend to be focused on medical devices, while the pharmaceutical industry is concentrated on the coasts. If students are interested in staying closer to home, an engineering or material science degree may help.