Connor O'Brien
Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons
Age: 28
ASTMH Member since 2010

"The Kean Fellowship will give me the opportunity to build skills that will allow me to work on projects in residency that might otherwise be beyond the time constraints of my job without prior expertise."


I was raised in Menlo Park, part of Silicon Valley. I grew up in the middle of the tech bubble and was always excited by research and technology. I remember watching events like Dolly and the Human Genome Project on the news and being completely engrossed. This led me to pursue a degree in neuroscience and biology in college, where I pursued research on spinal cord regeneration in zebrafish. I fell in love with the cutting edge science behind spinal cord injury, and applied for a job at Geron to work on their human embryonic stem cell therapeutic for spinal cord injury.

The science of converting a basic science idea, technique or product into a viable entity for human use is fascinating work. I love thinking about how to assess outcomes, predict problems and optimize efficacy. After discovering this, medical school became the obvious choice.

I continued to pursue this interest in translational research last year by working on a malaria drug resistance project in the lab of David Fidock. I was drawn to the project because there were possible clinical implications to the basic science work, and I found the concept of drug resistance phenomenally exciting. The prospect of chasing down a moving target is challenging and promises to captivate your attention indefinitely. I loved the work, and became exposed to the clinical side of the field, which prompted my application to the Kean Fellowship. I plan to apply to Internal Medicine for residency and continue to pursue my interest in translational research with a hope of being able to focus on topics in international medicine. 

Looking forward to the 60th Annual Meeting
I am very interested to get an update on artemisinin resistance. Watching the evolution of disease resistance in such nascent phases is fascinating, and I am excited to see what novel clinical and molecular discoveries are made that help expose the underpinnings of drug resistance in malaria.

What impact will the 2011 Kean Fellowship have on your future?
The Kean Fellowship gives me an opportunity to learn how to execute research in an international setting. With residency starting next year, my bandwith will become severely limited. The Kean Fellowship will give me the opportunity to build skills that will allow me to work on projects in residency that might otherwise be beyond the time constraints of my job without prior expertise. I hope to translate this coming work into functional knowledge to continue this type of work in the future.

Describe some of your most memorable travel or work experiences.
One of the most enlightening experiences I have ever had while traveling was when I was 14 traveling with my family in Botswana. We had the opportunity to visit a local outreach project--a school. While visiting the school, some of the kids invited me to play soccer with them. Because I was much bigger than them, I tried to be gentle. After the game I asked some of them how old they were, and I was shocked to find out that they were my age or older, yet I was at least 30 pounds heavier and 3-4 inches taller. Our guides later explained the chronic nutritional deficiencies and diseases that cause the growth retardation in the children. While this concept is old news to people in international research and medicine, it was shocking to see the stark disparity in size between the children and myself. That experience serves as a motivating factor in my choosing to pursue research related to the developing world. Seeing what a drastic impact disease and malnutrition has on the well being of these children was quite salient, and the prospect of helping reverse that phenomenon motivates me.

What advice would you give to those just entering school or trying to determine their specialty or field of interest?
Pick a specialty that allows you to pursue outside interests or incorporate your interests into your daily work. Whether those interests are obviously translatable like research to medicine or less so, picking a specialty that allows you to bring a unique perspective to the field is important. It will help you find extra meaning in your work, and your contribution will be more substantial. This sounds obvious, but it is easy to lose sight of when you are pulled in a million directions by all the new and exciting specialties you rotate through during third year of medical school. Taking time to reflect is important, and actively keeping your long-term goals in context with your short-term career goals takes some effort.