My Research: FAQ

Nicholas Chia

What do you work on?

My main research focuses on the dynamics of collective effects, that is, the emergence of (seemingly uncoordinated) order in complex systems--and specifically what interactions drive these systems. This includes modeling ecological interactions in the gut that give rise to colorectal cancer in humans using population modeling, metabolic modeling, and machine learning. It also includes generating novel tools for measuring and comparing ecosystems based on sequence data. I've worked with a number of other faculty both here and elsewhere, to understand many different diseases. My main disease focus is in colorectal cancer. I also support a number of clinical microbiology tests that have made real and positive impacts on patients and providers. I'm proud of both my purely theoretical and practical accomplishments.

Why are you in Deptartment of Surgery?

Funny story. My whole life, not too many people have known exactly what to do with me. Joining Mayo Clinic to help start-up the Microbiome Program was no exception. I didn't quite belong anywhere and the first director of the Microbiome Program was a surgeon.

What preparation should I have before joining your group?

My research invariably involves a mixture of analytical (statistics, partial differential equations, mathematical modeling) and computational (biology, bioinformatics, machine learning, systems biology, metabolic modeling) work. In general, prospective students and postdocs should have strong familiarity with at least one of these quantitative techniques. Although some basic knowledge is required to start, the rest can be developed or learned on the job.

The most important preparation is to develop a sense of curiosity and fun. "Successful students are those who play" is something I was told as a graduate student and it has remained true. You cannot do science without wanting to ask questions and you cannot establish new paradigms without playing around.

What do your students and postdocs do after they graduate?

So far, I have supervised 1 student to completion of a Ph.D and 5 postdocs. The student who completed a Ph.D went on to a postdoc in Texas and is now at NIH. Three postdocs have gone on to faculty positions in top research universities, one joined Mayo Clinic as a Research Scientist, and one went on to a postdoc at Los Alamos National Laboratory.