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Alumni

Alumni Spotlight:
Featuring Ryan Henrici

In this edition of BMB’s Alumni Spotlight, we feature Ryan Henrici, MD PhD. 

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Image of Ryan Henrici

Currently Ryan is the Director of Translational Research at BigHat Biosciences and a Lecturer at the University of Pennsylvania Perelman School of Medicine.  

Ryan launched his career in science as a Schreyer Honors student at Penn State, in the Molecular and Cell Biology Option of our department’s Biochemistry and Molecular Biology major.  An extremely engaged student, he was involved in many Penn State groups and societies, such as Phi Beta Kappa, Penn State’s THON, and Alpha Epsilon Delta.  In addition to these groups and societies, Ryan also worked as an undergraduate researcher in the Tan Laboratory under the guidance of Verne M. Willaman Professor of Molecular Biology, Song Tan.  Ryan’s research focused on understanding how regulators and drivers of cancer interact with their genetic targets with protein biochemistry and X-ray crystallography techniques. 

Ryan was then awarded the Marshall Scholarship and attended the University of London’s School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine for his graduate studies. He earned his PhD in Infectious and Tropical Diseases in 2018.  The next phase in his career brought him back to the state of Pennsylvania to the University of Pennsylvania’s Perelman School of Medicine where he completed his Doctor of Medicine (MD) degree 

During the COVID-19 pandemic, Ryan came to BigHat Biosciences as an Infectious Disease Specialist where he led efforts to discover and develop therapeutic antibodies for treating and preventing infection with SARS-CoV-2 using artificial intelligence and synthetic biology.  He assumed his current role of Director of Translational Research in October of 2021 and now leads therapeutic strategy, disease target identification, and early-stage research and development. 

He also teaches medical microbiology and cell biology at the University of Pennsylvania Perelman School of Medicine. 

You can follow Ryan on Linkedin 

Let’s chat with Ryan, talk about his experiences while at Penn State, what inspires him, and catch up with what he’s been up to. 

What is the nature of your research at BigHat Biosciences? 

At BigHat Biosciences, I lead a lab group to use artificial intelligence/machine learning to discover and design new medicines. We focus on therapeutic antibodies, which have become enormously successful treatments for an array of diseases from cancer to COVID-19. Antibodies are like molecular swiss army knives because they can do simple things like block a disease-causing protein or complex tasks like bringing multiple cells into contact to reprogram the immune system. Designing antibodies for these tasks is tricky, but artificial intelligence helps us efficiently cut through this complexity. My team and I identify devastating diseases that urgently need new treatments, uncover the weaknesses of those diseases, and then rapidly design, build, and test new therapeutics.

What was it that made you want to come to Penn State, and BMB, to pursue your education? 

I wanted to come to Penn State because I knew there would be endless opportunities to really find my personal and intellectual passions. The Schreyer Honors College offered a small school atmosphere within the big university setting, which was the best of both worlds to me. Academically, I knew I was interested in biological sciences, and in BMB, I found a home. The close-knit community of students and faculty, supported by the Schreyer Honors College, offered a challenging and rewarding environment to learn. The BMB curriculum clearly prepared students for grad school or medical school or careers in industry. That flexible but comprehensive coursework in addition to ample research opportunities really appealed to me. 

How do you feel Penn State, and BMB, prepared you for your current position or career? 

The training I got in the BMB department from the classroom to the lab was truly first-rate. I developed a very solid foundation of knowledge and practical skills that propelled me into my PhD and MD. In my current role, I recall the fundamentals of protein biology on a daily basis. Beyond the specifics of my degree, I think my time in the BMB department taught me to really think critically. Every day presents new data, new challenges, and new decision points, and I'm much, much better equipped for those as a graduate of the BMB program at Penn State. 

Did you conduct research while at Penn State?  Where was your research conducted and what was its focus? 

For nearly all four years of my undergraduate time at Penn State, I worked in Professor Song Tan's laboratory in the Center for Eukaryotic Gene Regulation in North Frear building. We worked to understand how regulators and drivers of cancer interact with their genetic targets using protein biochemistry and X-ray crystallography techniques. These studies allow us to directly visualize how these proteins function and how we might disrupt them therapeutically. During the summer after my sophomore year, I worked at the Lankenau Institute for Medical Research under Professor Janet Sawicki. There, we focused on designing and testing novel treatments for solid malignancies in mouse models. Lastly, I had the opportunity to work on a special project to map the national security risks of biological research. Infectious diseases are constantly evolving in nature, and pathogen research requires balancing the medical and scientific benefits of research with risks of accidental laboratory escape or malicious use. 

Share at least one interesting/fun fact about yourself. 

For most of my pre-Penn State life, I wanted to be an architect! I suppose my current role is like being a nano-scale architect, designing and building medicines. 

What do you like to do when you’re not at work? 

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Image of Ryan Henrici with his dog

 

 

 

 

 

I love building things. My wife and I love designing and creating things for our home - the most recent piece is a chest of drawers, which has expanded to a new walk-in closet! When we're not building things, I like to spend as much time outside as possible with my golden retriever, Stella, or friends. I also love to sail and be out on the water. 

Once a Nittany Lion, Always a Nittany Lion!  We Are Penn State 

I've had the privilege of setting foot on five continents. On every one of them, I've met a Penn Stater. Every time I meet a fellow Nittany Lion in some far-flung place, I am briefly shocked (what is a Penn State grad doing in rural Uganda?) but then not actually very surprised. It's powerful to be a part of such an accomplished and distributed group. Our iconic logo always starts a lively conversation. 

Advice from Ryan to future generations of scientists: 

It's always worth it to say 'yes' and try something new. Penn State in particular has so many interesting opportunities that might be related to what you're doing or totally out in left field. The easiest thing to do is to stay in your lane, go to class, and complete your degree. Definitely go to class and complete your degree. But you only get a few precious years before flipping your tassel, so stop reading this post and get out there!