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Biochemistry and Molecular Biotechnology Blog

Sean Ryder

Tuesday, April 25, 2023

This month, Haley sat down with Dr. Sean Ryder (@RyderLab), one of our distinguished faculty and the current Vice Chair of Outreach in the Biochemistry & Molecular Biotechnology Department.


Diversity Profile of the Month!

Dr. Sean Ryder wearing a straw cowboy hat out in the woods.

Where did you grow up?

That is a tricky question for me to answer. My dad was in the Air Force, so I moved around a lot as a kid – we never spent more than 2-3 years at any given location. I was born in Washington state, and then quickly moved to England when I was four months old. From there, we moved to Texas, California, Georgia, New Hampshire, Connecticut…. I went to high school and did my undergraduate degree in New Hampshire, so that is the place I still consider home.


How did moving so much impact your worldview?

It is hard to know – it’s the only life I knew! On the up-side, I got to see and experience a lot of different places and ways of doing things. On the down-side, I struggled to feel like part of a community.


What was your path to becoming faculty and a biomedical researcher?

I was an avid reader of science fiction as a kid. I was always going to the library. I was a huge fan of anything by Isaac Asimov in particular – I’ve read everything he’s ever written at least twice! I’m not completely sure how I ended up in the life sciences rather than any other type of science… my dad encouraged me to go into engineering, but it didn’t really appeal to me. I guess I was inspired by an experiment we did in AP Biology in high school. I was given a Drosophila mutant (I was assigned the classic white-eye gene) and had to do mendelian genetics to determine the mode of inheritance of this phenotype. This experience (including hiding the flies from my mom when I had to bring them home at night) made me realize – life science is fascinating!

The dream of running my own lab someday started during my undergraduate education while I was working as an intern in a research lab. Even though the biotech industry was booming, I thought, “You know who has a great job? The guy I work for!” So I decided to go straight to graduate school after I finished my undergrad and I loved it. I made lots of great friends and enjoyed the challenge and excitement of working full time on a research project. After my post-doc, I went out on the academic job market and had two great interviews but zero offers. That was a real gut check moment. I remember being alone in my garage, doing maintenance on my motorcycle, and struggling to figure out what I was going to do if it didn’t work out. I decided to give it another shot because running my own lab had been my dream for so long, and fortunately I got a few different offers the next year and everything worked out better then I could have imagined.


Amongst those offers, why did you choose UMass?

Oh, well, choosing where to start my lab was the easiest choice! UMass, of course! The research community here was clearly strong in my field—there was already a really good community of both RNA scientists and C. elegans people on campus. The latter was really important, since my experience with worms was practically zero. And I’m pretty sure I would have failed if I had gone anywhere else. I needed the intellectual support and friendship of the people who ended up being my colleagues here.


What setbacks have you faced in your career that you’d be willing to share with us?

Oof. So many setbacks. Plenty, both personal and professional. One I talk about frequently is my diagnosis with the potentially debilitating disease ankylosing spondylitis. I became symptomatic in my early 20’s, but I didn’t get a diagnosis until I was over 30. This is unfortunately pretty common, since there is no easy path to diagnosis. You have to wait until there’s enough damage that can be detected by x-rays and other scans. The suboptimal health insurance I had during graduate school definitely did not help. I suffered a lot during those ten years of diagnosis. It affected my mental health and my ability to do my job. It was not always easy, especially as a junior faculty member, to explain that I can’t walk today, I’m having trouble getting out of this chair after spending hours writing grants, etc. Luckily, I had a great support network at home and in BMB.

After trial and error with several different medications, I finally ended up on a regime that really helps. I can live a practically normal life! It is really cool because therapies like the anti-TNF chimeric antibody I’m on were first developed by academic scientists like us.


Did you ever consider changing your research focus to find treatments or cures for ankylosing spondylitis?

Nope. I never thought about it. This is going to sound awful, but it is because I hated learning about immunology, which is horrible because it’s so important. There’s something about the nomenclature and factor-ology that I have a hard time wrapping my head around.


Any other challenges in your career?

One challenge I faced that is somewhat rare amongst science faculty is being a first-generation college graduate. Really, my presence here is due to the perseverance of my family, especially my mother, who worked so hard to ensure I could go to college. I worked multiple jobs throughout high school to have some money saved up, too. That, combined with scholarships, Pell grants, federally-subsidized student loans, and attending a local state University with a good value for education got me to the point where I could pursue this career path.


What would you do if you never had to work again?

…I have no idea. One of my phenotypes is that I’m not very good at sitting still. I always have to be doing or obsessing about something to just function as a human being. What motivates me is solving complex problems, so with unlimited resources and freedom to do whatever I want... I guess I would try to solve some big problem, something that you normally wouldn’t be able to work on... I would have a hard time figuring out what problem to focus on, because I have so many things I care about: geopolitical issues, climate science, music, reproductive biology, building things, restoring things... You know what, maybe I would work on the science of addiction. That is such a huge problem and desperately needs some disruptive technology to solve it. The addiction crisis is very close to my heart - I spend a fair amount of my free time working with people recovering from addiction. Or maybe I would try to learn Polish so I could go to Poland to teach science to displaced Ukrainian children. Honestly, what sounds cool to me changes with the weather.


What is your favorite kitchen utensil?

Without question it is the coffee maker.