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Kevin Eng: Mad about science

Getting to know the assistant professor of oncology in the department of biostatistics and bioinformatics at Roswell

Photo by kc kratt


His personal mission is to help craft the next generation of cancer researchers in Buffalo. With infectious passion and leavening wit, Kevin Eng, PhD, rebuts any notion that science is boring and math attracts grinds. “I like learning stuff,” he says. Eng, a graduate of The Park School, returned in 2013 to take a job at Roswell Park Cancer Institute, after earning bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral degrees in statistics from Brown University and the University of Wisconsin-Madison. During postdoctoral training at Madison, he studied statistical genomics, bioinformatics, and ovarian cancer, perfect training for his current job as assistant professor of oncology in the department of biostatistics and bioinformatics at Roswell.


Eng heads a lab team of mathematicians and statisticians working on standardization issues. He calls them “the no-fun police” because they vet the work of other scientists, asking questions like “How do you know that what you’ve found isn’t just a coincidence?”


“We help drive a lot of questions and frame them,” Eng says, adding that he’s “wired” from the Japanese side of his family (his mother) “to always improve processes.” Business acumen comes from his father’s Chinese heritage. “If the boss fired me, I could always go to work for IBM,” he says.


It’s unlikely that an IBM career would make him nearly as happy as he is right now, following a lifelong interest in “figuring out cool things to do with science.” But why choose cancer as a research subject? “I came up in mathematics and statistics, where we talk about solving great problems that are usually a bit esoteric,” Eng explains. “When I worked on my first cancer trial, it was obvious that cancer was a great problem with immediate impact on people.” Figuring out what the great problems in cancer are and how to attack them is, he explains, the main contribution of his research group.


With a brain perpetually on high alert, Eng uses downtime to learn more, recently taking up boxing and jiu-jitsu. He enjoys travel to places like Tokyo with his longtime girlfriend, Sara Schmitt, whom he met when both were Park School students. She is a poet-cum-IT executive who lives in Madison. Their romance thrives and survives the distance. In Eng’s Allentown home, a miniature bull terrier named Clio is a more constant companion.


We asked the researcher, who is slated to deliver a TED Talk this spring on behalf of Roswell, what else moves and motivates him.


What scares you?

Speaking in public, like that TED Talk thing. And I don’t like being interviewed, talking about myself.


Pet peeve?

I don’t like a lot of inefficiency. That’s a very Japanese thing, I suppose. I always want to quantify things.


What makes you laugh?

I like really stupid puns. I also like really complicated puns.


Cocktail or beer?

Definitely a beer at Ulrich’s.


Would you rather stay home and cook or eat out?

Wish I could say I cook, but I can’t, so eat out is the choice here.


Name one place you’d like to visit.

Can’t think of one. If I want to go someplace, I go.


Tell us who you’d invite to an ideal dinner party?

I would pick Takashi Murakami, the Japanese contemporary artist [his first large-scale installation in Western New York was at the Albright-Knox last fall], and the chef Masaharu Morimoto [one of his eponymous restaurants is in Manhattan’s meatpacking district] for a good game of “who wore it best” since people often comment on our physical resemblance. I always get some double takes when we eat at Morimoto NYC. Plus, I like their work!


Someone gives you $1 million—what do you do with it?

Every cancer is defined by its genetic code, its DNA, its RNA. We’ve had the human genome for fifteen years. We know what all the players are. My team has been designing an effort to sequence lots of patients. Right now, this is a huge effort across the country. We talk about moonshots like the APOLLO missions: It’s a race to sequence as many cancers as possible to put any one tumor into some context. Roswell has all the elements: we have a team that knows how to sequence, we have great clinical teams. If we had a million tomorrow, we could sequence every willing case. We would build an encyclopedia of these cancers that everyone at the institute can pore over and come up with ways to attack that cancer.                  


Maria Scrivani writes about local history and people who make a difference.


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