Focused on computational medicine, bioinformatics, and human genetics
Developing a research career can be tough on family life; flexibility and perseverance pay off.
Ryan E. Mills has lived much of his life in the Great Lakes Region. Along the way, he headed south to Georgia Tech for graduate degrees.
At Georgia Tech, Ryan graduated with a master’s degree in Applied Biology in 2003 and a Ph.D. in Bioinformatics in 2006.
After postdoctoral stints at Emory University and Harvard Medical School, he joined the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, in 2012 as an assistant professor. Now Ryan is an associate professor of human genetics and of computational medicine and bioinformatics.
“I am very fortunate to have had the opportunities to pursue a vocation as a research scientist,” Ryan says. His lab is focused on discovery and analysis of structural variation from genomic sequence data and development of methods for clinical diagnostics.
What is your average workday like?
As a principal investigator, I help train the next generation of scientists and at the same time extend our knowledge of genetics and its impact on human health and disease.
I spend much of my day mentoring students on their research projects as well as their career development. This is the part of my job I enjoy the most, as I get to watch individuals gradually grow into fantastic scientists.
I also teach courses on computational biology and serve on several committees, including graduate admissions and education.
How did Georgia Tech prepare you for your current position?
Georgia Tech provided a solid foundation not only of the fundamental knowledge in my area of study, but also on how to be a scientist. It is important to have the right tools to seek an answer to a question; it is equally important to know the right question to ask.
My mentor, Dr. Mark Borodovsky, and his research group set me on the academic path that has led to my current position as a tenured professor. The collaborative environment at Georgia Tech enabled me to think across disciplines, which in my field of bioinformatics is crucial for working at the interface of biology, computer science, and mathematics.
I learned a lot by taking classes outside my comfort zone, such as neural dynamics and quantitative electrophysiology with Dr. Rob Butera. Those classes made me appreciate looking at problems from different perspectives and helped me tremendously as I now teach courses to students coming from various graduate programs and departments.
What has been the greatest challenge in your professional life so far?
When developing a research career, you often find yourself having to move your family every few years to a new institution and a new city.
It can be difficult to uproot your family from friends and colleagues every few years while trying to juggle both your career and that of your spouse. Many times, it felt as though we were just starting to settle down when a new opportunity presented itself and we had to move again.
We have now been in Ann Arbor for almost seven years and really enjoy where we are at in life. I suppose the lesson we learned is that perseverance will eventually pay off.
What has been the most gratifying experience of your professional career so far?
In 2014, my group published its first independent research paper. This was the first investigation that we started from scratch in my laboratory. It was very satisfying to develop a project from an initial seed idea to an in-depth exploration and reporting of results.
I was very proud of the publication as well as the trainees who contributed greatly to its success.
What is the most important thing you learned while at Georgia Tech?
Flexibility. Sometimes research, or life in general, will toss you some curveballs and you must be able to adapt to the situation.
What is a vivid memory of your time at Georgia Tech?
My best memories are those of the times with my fellow students. We would do activities together (intramurals, team trivia, outings, etc.), laugh and commiserate together, and generally lean on each other for support. Having a social structure in place helped us get through many of the pressures of graduate school.
What advice would you give to current students at Georgia Tech?
Perseverance and flexibility will help you throughout your studies and with life in general.
Choose a goal and head steadfast in that direction, but don’t be afraid to take an alternative path to get there.
If you could have taken an alternative career path, what would you be doing instead?
I have taken a liking to carpentry. It is very satisfying to make something with your hands and have something tangible to show for your efforts.
What’s something about yourself that’s not obvious to your colleagues?
I am an avid board gamer and play frequently with my family and friends. I enjoy the mechanics and logic of the games as much as the underlying themes.
If you could have dinner with any person from history, whom would you invite?
I would like to meet Sophie Scholl. She was an anti-Nazi political activist who stood up against oppression and evil when so many of her contemporaries did not. Her anti-Nazi resistance caused her death before she turned 22. Her story and others like it show us that anyone, no matter their age or background, can fight for what is right and have a positive impact on the world.