- Meet Dr. Olivier NoelMD/PhD Student at Penn State College of Medicine
Dr. Noel is a 2017 Forbes magazine “30 Under 30” honoree in science. He was an American Heart Association and National Institutes of Health fellow and has been featured in the New York Daily News, on CBS radio, and in other news outlets for his academic and entrepreneurial achievements.
Dr. Noel grew up in Haiti and moved to Queens, NY, to attend Queens College of the City University of New York. He graduated in 2011 with a major in chemistry with a concentration in biochemistry and honors in biomedical science research. He then entered Penn State University’s dual MD/PhD Medical Scientist Training Program, obtaining a PhD in Biochemistry and Molecular Genetics in 2018. His thesis research focused on identifying the genetics behind patients’ positive health effects following bariatric surgery and developing novel therapies for diabetic patients.
During his MD/PhD training, Dr. Noel founded DNAsimple, a genetic startup company with the goal of helping to accelerate genetic research by connecting DNA donors with research scientists. The company, based in Philadelphia, launched out of the YCombinator fellowship and also went through the DreamIt accelerator in the spring of 2016. Dr. Noel subsequently appeared on the ABC show Shark Tank, where he negotiated a $200,000 deal with billionaire mogul Mark Cuban. Dr. Noel recently returned to the academic setting to complete medical school and is planning to enter a plastic surgery residency program in 2021.
Dr. Noel's Media Features
2018 National Institute of Health: Bench to Bedside to Business: A Talk on Startups in Science
2017 HealthCare Analytics News An Innovative Way of Collecting DNA Samples Should Have Researchers Salivating
2017 Penn State News College of Medicine graduate student launches genetics research startup
2017 Philadelphia Magazine These Philly Change-Makers Made the Forbes 30 Under 30 List
2016 BuzzFeed These Startups Will Pay You For Your DNA
2016 Boston Globe ‘Biorights’ rise: Donors demand control of their samples
Q&A with Dr. Noel:
“There are multiple avenues to achieving your goal”
Please tell us a little about yourself: Where did you grow up? Can you share one or two memorable experiences from your childhood or teenage years?
My name is Olivier Francois Noel. I grew up in Port au Prince, Haiti, where I completed high school, after which I moved to Queens, New York. My time in Haiti was incredibly formative. I think the rigor and discipline of the all-boys elementary/middle/high school I attended was instrumental in setting me up for success when I continued with my studies in the US.
I have always loved the sciences, particularly chemistry, and can recall picking up books at the library to learn more than what was being taught in the classroom. I remember thinking when I was in middle school that real-life applications of basic chemical processes, such as the mechanisms behind combustion and oxidation, were the coolest things ever. By the time I graduated from high school, my passion for science had materialized into a desire to become a doctor, which in my mind meant saving lives in the hospital and at the same time “creating new cures” for patients in the lab.
In terms of a memorable experience, in the book “21 Things To Do When You Turn 21,” which I co-wrote with Elisabeth Vincentelli and others, I wrote that my father moving out and leaving the family house when I was 14 was a notable and difficult moment of my teenage years. I described my feelings at the time as being “angry, scared and [feeling] like I had to instantly grow up and fill the void he had left and become ‘the man’ in the house.” This remains a memorable experience from my early life.
Please tell us briefly what you are now studying or doing professionally.
I am currently an MD/PhD student at the Penn State College of Medicine. I obtained my PhD in 2018 in biochemistry and molecular genetics. I’m in my last year of medical school and am currently applying to residency programs in plastic surgery. During my PhD studies, I founded a genetic startup company, DNAsimple, and spent a year working full time to grow the company. As you can see, medicine, science, and entrepreneurship have all been and continue to be of great interest to me. I look forward to incorporating all three of these areas as a plastic and reconstructive surgeon.
That is wonderful. Can you share how you became interested in your current field of work or study? What excites you about your work?
I think I’ve already touched on how I became interested in a career as a physician-scientist. Interestingly, I did not initially understand that generally a scientist (PhD) is the one focusing on new discoveries, as opposed to a physician (MD) who focuses more on treating patients. I credit one of my college advisors at Queens College in New York for enlightening me about MD/PhD combined programs, which offered the opportunity to do both as a career.
I really enjoy the concept that one can see patients with a particular condition and then go back to the lab and look for ways to not only understand the mechanism behind the patient’s condition but also find better ways to treat it, either surgically or with medications. I truly find that concept absolutely fascinating.
What are some of the challenges, if any, you have faced or are currently facing during your professional journey? How did you overcome those challenges? What lessons did you learn from these experiences?
We can probably make this the topic of this entire interview! I’ll start with sharing a one-time example and then share a more “chronic” one. I remember receiving a call on a Friday evening from a potential investor in my company whom I had reached out to. He basically said he had 10 minutes to hear me out – at 2 pm the next day in Silicon Valley. It was the end of a long day working in the lab but I immediately booked a flight from Philadelphia to San Francisco and on arrival rented a car to drive to Silicon Valley. I was beyond exhausted, but I had my 10 minutes to pitch. Right after the meeting, I headed straight back to Philadelphia.
To make a long story short, during a layover on the return flight I checked my email and was informed that the investor was not interested. While this was a tough experience, if I could go back in time I would do the same thing again. It taught me that success in entrepreneurship (or anything else) would not be an easy road and that perseverance would be key to ultimately achieving my goals. (I ended up raising capital from other investors, including from Mark Cuban on the TV show Shark Tank.)
Another challenge I face on a more consistent basis is balancing career and personal time. My fiancée often reminds me that I “say yes to everything” as a hint that balancing career and personal/family time is important. I love to take on challenges, pursue new ideas, and find ways to make myself even more prepared for the “next thing.” As I mentioned earlier, I love what I’m doing, studying, and learning. It is almost natural for me to go 100 miles per hour at baseline (for good or bad) and increase the speed as needed. I would say that I am a “give 100% to everything or don’t do it at all” type of guy. At the same time, I do love the people around me, so it is a constant struggle to juggle the two and make sure that I am equally successful at both.
What are some key strategies you have used to help you succeed in your studies or career?
I get asked this question a lot, and invite you to read my in-depth response during an interview I gave last year to Penn State Dickinson Law. I wrote that “great planning and great discipline” are key ingredients to success in our studies and careers. To be successful at anything, you have to be committed to the goal you have in mind, and determined to never “settle” and to work as hard as possible to achieve it. I think we all know when we’re giving our ultimate best to something, and it’s vital to be honest with oneself and keep oneself accountable. Ultimately, someone else cannot want you to be more successful than you want to be for yourself. It’s really a mindset above all.
It would be naïve to think that everything will work as planned and that failure is not part of the process. In fact, it is to be expected and should be considered a stepping-stone upon which critical experience and valuable knowledge can be gained. That’s also where the planning part comes in handy – if plan A does not work, it’s OK to go to plan B and also to have a plan C, D, etc. – not because you are planning to fail, but to force yourself to see that there are multiple avenues to achieving your goal. Success breeds success and the more you realize that you can achieve a goal, the more motivated and confident you will become, and the more able you will be to take on bigger goals and achieve them.
How has mentoring influenced your professional journey?
To date, I have had four professional mentors. I first found out about MD/PhD programs during my sophomore year at Queens College thanks to my mentor, Ms, Maureen Pierce-Anyan, who was my premed advisor and quickly turned into a life mentor. She was always available, an incredible asset in terms of learning about and preparing for medical school, and overall a mother figure for all the Black and underrepresented minority premed students on campus.
Dr. Nathalia Holtzman was my undergraduate research advisor at Queens College. She’s the one who first taught me how to pipette and who ultimately helped me develop into a young and successful independent scientist. I can say the same about my PhD advisor at Penn State, Dr. Glenn Gerhard. He has been an unbelievable teacher and mentor and I am incredibly grateful to have joined his lab. Last but not least is my medical school mentor, Dr. Donald Mackay, who helped me navigate through the latter part of medical school, introduced me to the field of plastic surgery, and has given me exceptional and valuable tools to enable me to become a successful surgeon in the future.
As you can see, mentors don’t necessarily have to come from the same country or be of the same gender or ethnicity as you. First and foremost, they need to care about you and want you to succeed as if you were their own child. That’s when you know that you’ve found an excellent mentor. Mentors can literally make all the difference when it comes to being successful. I find that to be true precisely in cases such as mine, where I am the first in my immediate family to graduate from college and from medical/graduate school and don’t have the connections or family members to pave the way for me.
What I personally enjoy about my relationship with my four mentors is the ability to learn specific things from each of them. I still stay in touch with all four and have transferred some of the same principles to my mentees.
Have you mentored/are you currently mentoring anyone? If yes, in what capacity? Would you be willing to serve as a mentor as part of the BMPRC?
Yes! I have had numerous mentees over the years, with most of them interested in the fields of medicine and research. I would be willing and happy to serve as a mentor as part of the BMPRC.
What are some of your future career plans and what do you need to do to get there?
I foresee a career as a surgeon-scientist innovator. From a clinical standpoint, I am looking to become a plastic surgeon specializing in microsurgery, performing complex surgical reconstructions of all sorts. From a research standpoint, I have developed a special interest in integrating genetics/genomics with Vascularized Composite Allotransplantation (VCA) in ways that will allow us to perform face, hand, and other body-part transplants more effectively. From an entrepreneurial standpoint, I am interested in finding ways to translate a lot of the great work we do in the lab into tools that patients can readily use to better their health.
As far as the training I’ll need to get there, it will take 6 years of plastic surgery training plus 1 year of microsurgery fellowship training. So far, I’ve done 4 years of undergraduate education. So far, I’ve done 4 years of undergraduate education, 5 years of a PhD program, and 3.5 years of medical school. It has been a long journey, but it surely continues!
What else would you like to share with us that you think might be helpful for others interested in your field of work, research, or study? (Recent funding, publications, or any other stories to captivate the young mind.)
Sure! So far this year (2020), I have published three peer-reviewed articles and have submitted four more papers to research journals. One of the published articles is of special interest to me as it deals with diversity (or lack of) in medicine and particularly in the surgical field. The lack of diversity within the surgical field in general has been a well-documented issue for a long time. I took an interest in the topic and wanted to achieve two main goals with this particular research project: (1) understand how gender and ethnic diversity in the surgical workforce compares to that of the patient population we serve at our institution, and (2) provide recommendations on how to tackle the persistent lack of diversity within the surgical field.
A few years ago, I read an NPR article that said that there were fewer Black men in medical school in the US in 2014 than there were in 1978. That statistic is mind-blowing!! Increasing the number of Black, Latinx and other underrepresented minorities in medicine is of great interest to me, and as I move up the academic ranks I continue to think of ways to contribute to the cause and help to move things forward.
Do you have any recommendations or comments for the BMPRC?
I want to commend you for taking this initiative. Black male professors and researchers are unfortunately a very rare breed and I think creating a place where we can concentrate our energy and resources for the benefit of the next generation is terrific and desperately needed. I am honored to play a part in it and would like to pledge my support to its mission.