Dr. Ryan Pekson is on the verge of a scientific breakthrough. Two years into his current stint as a postdoctoral research fellow at Albert Einstein College of Medicine’s Kitsis Lab in New York, the Filipino scientist is spearheading a project that aims to understand the association between mitochondrial dynamics and cell death involved in ischemia and heart failure for possible intervention—and the answer is within reach. In plain speak: he and his team are about to change the world.
A few hours have passed since that sweltering Monday noon, and there’s few more to go before the man of science and research ends his biannual vacation here and flies back to New York. Pekson is sitting at the lobby of The Peninsula Manila, just off the main doors, with coffee in front of him and jazz playing in the back. He is calm and composed for a sit-down, ready to share his story. It’s one where a countryside kid who had no idea of what he wanted in life went on to have as impressive as a three-page CV there is, where a self-confessed happy-go-lucky college student topped the boards just to prove something, where a surprise passion in teaching
from a review center laid the path toward becoming a dean at age 28, and, among other things, where the holes of his boss’s socks somehow taught a valuable lesson in life.
In a couple of hours, you’ll be flying back to New York, your home for almost seven years now. What’s the task that awaits you on the other end of the flight?
Right now, I’m trying to understand cell death. It’s a very basic concept wherein every time the cell gets an insult, it dies of two ways: apoptosis or necrosis. But we still don’t know what makes them decide go one way over the other. A lot of brilliant minds still have no answer to that simple question, so I’m focused on discovering how that decision is made, especially on the heart. If we could understand that, we can intervene the process and save lives.
We’re really excited about some recent data we generated a couple of weeks ago before I left the states for a vacation, and we think our lab is already on the edge of getting the answer to the question.
This is something that will revolutionize the entire concept of cell death, and we’re so amped up with the current work.
Some people don’t think research is exciting, but it really is.
Your current stint as a postdoc in Einstein started in May 2016, just months after completing your PhD in Pharmaceutical Sciences from Saint John’s University in Queens. Tell us about this new career path you’re carving out in the states, after coming from the fields of teaching and administration here.
Well, most of my professional background was here. I was with Adamson University for 10 years, rose up the ranks and became the dean there for three years until 2011, when I pursued my PhD in New York. Now, I’m a postdoc, which is still sort of a training level, and that means I haven’t really started a professional career in the US yet.
The plan is to hopefully continue a research career there later on, and perhaps operate my own lab, as well. Although only a small percentage ends up having his or her own lab, it’s the main dream: Being the boss and having the liberty to create your own research agenda/program.
For sure you have already made a concept of your own lab…
It’ll be more about basic science research, which is about studying diseases and mechanisms. With new knowledge from the research, there will be avenues in which people can design new modalities of treatment to diseases. There are a lot of diseases out there we still don’t know a lot about of, so that’s the goal of basic science research.
What’s the difference between the research industries here and abroad?
The government support for it is really not as much as you’d see in the other countries. In the United States they really pour in grant money to support research as an industry. For them, what they invest on is the product of research, which is an industry by itself. I don’t think the Philippines has seen that much vision into research yet. I think their perception is research is just one of those items they spend on and they don’t get their money back from it, which is the sad thing. There is support, but not as much as what you’d see in other countries.
Before you left for New York in 2011 to pursue your PhD, you were set in life in the eyes of most people. You topped the board in Pharmacists’ Licensure Exam, had a couple of degrees from the University of the Philippines Manila (BS in Pharmacy and MS in Pharmacology), plus multiple jobs to juggle. What made you decide to go to the field of research in the US?
If I just want a career, I can go back here and I’m done. I was a dean before, and I was offered the vice president position in another school. But I don’t see it that way. If what I really want is research, I don’t think that’s going to happen here.
It might be selfish, but it’s actually something not only for me. I want to do something that will impact more people, that will have a significant contribution, and I don’t really see a clear picture of it happening here. If you don’t have the support or infrastructure to do it, it’s going to be a just a dream.
Like I said, if I just want a career, a good salary, I earn more here than I earn there as a postdoc. So it really doesn’t make sense that I stay there and be a trainee, when I could be a somebody here. But I make those sacrifice because I want something that will be bigger later than what I currently have now.
There’s the “never settle” attitude that’s clearly reflected on your CV. You climbed the administration ladder in Adamson and cleared out educational achievements one after the other. Where did you get that mind-set?
It doesn’t say in my CV, but I came from a very poor family. I was raised in Pangasinan, studied public high school there, and when I was about to enter college, we didn’t really have the money. My parents told me that either I go to a school that will offer a scholarship, or not study college at all. So it was either UP, PMA or no school.
I think what motivates me more to be successful is that I’ve been through hard times in life, and I know how bad it can get. Life can throw you so many things, and you just have to fight through it, roll with the waves, and have a dream. You just have to push yourself to be something. Because if you don’t realize that the challenges are something you can get through with education, you will not get through it.
Tell us a little more about your personal background. How many siblings do you have, and what were the jobs of your parents?
We were six siblings in the family, and I’m the youngest. We had a small canteen outside of the
public high school. When it was my time going to college, they stopped the business and moved with me to Manila.
My mom stayed at home, while my dad became an FX driver. I had Socialized Tuition and Financial Assistance Program, or STFAP, in UP, which saved us from paying 100 percent of the tuition. But during my fourth year, that was reduced to 50 percent because the system had to accommodate younger students. But even then, we weren’t able to pay in full. I would have to file a student loan and ask an employee to cosign it with me. At the end of the semester, when my father got enough money, we paid. That’s how it was. It was tough.
We were living in a small studio unit in Novaliches. I had to take three rides to go to UP Manila. I had to wake up very early to take a jeep to Blumentritt, and then the LRT. Or, if I’m lucky, if my daddy’s at home, I come with him on the first trip from Novaliches to Blumentritt. Whatever he gets will be my baon. Then he would drop me at Faura. It’s a humbling experience, but it makes you tough.
Speaking of your days in UP, take us back to your undergrad days and how you placed first in the boards. Have you always been a star student?
I never was a very diligent student in UP. All I aspired for was to not fail any of my classes. My GWA wasn’t something you would expect and I even had a couple of 4’s, which meant I was on the fence.
So when I took the boards, I was so lucky to top it. I didn’t expect it. None of the faculty expected it. It was a surprise for everybody, even to my parents.
I think I just challenged myself, you know? I knew I didn’t do anything much in college, so I told myself that if there’s something I could do, this was my last chance. That if I focused more and invested more time on preparing for the boards, maybe I could line in the top 10. I really pushed myself. Luckily, I ended up at first place.
Being a top-notcher is obviously no small feat, much more if you landed in first place. What were the opportunities that opened for you after that? Does it include the events the led to your founding of the Manor Review Center, the country’s largest review center that caters to 80 percent of Pharmacy graduates preparing for the licensure examination in the Philippines?
I remember talking to one of my professors back in college about the career paths of a pharmacist. She said it’s mostly being a community pharmacist or going into manufacturing lab. Teaching wasn’t part of it.
But she said I could be like her. I didn’t think I was cut to be a professor, who’s repeating the same things again and again. I thought about working in a manufacturing company, do productions or do quality control. Not teach, definitely.
But after the boards, the review center where I studied called and offered me to teach review. That was the first chance I had in teaching, and I kind of enjoyed it. It was like a performance to me; it came natural. I loved the response of the students when I was able to break down some complex idea or theory and them being able to appreciate it. I enjoyed that part and stayed on.
Eventually, after three years, there were three of us who decided to break up from the review center where we were teaching and told the owner that we wanted to offer our own review program. We parted ways not in bad blood, and actually asked for their blessings. But it was tough to start. Eventually, students, by mouth, learned about our review center. Now we have thousands of students with branches in Baguio, Cebu, Davao and Iloilo. Our sacrifices paid off.
If there’s 1,000 students taking the board exams, 800 of those come from our review center. And usually, majority of the top 10 comes from our review center. It’s been very successful. Now that I’m postdoc in the US, my boss still allows me to come back here twice a year for three weeks to be in my review center and teach.
As for the events after the boards, I finished my Masters and became the youngest dean in the country at 28 at Adamson University’s College of Pharmacy. I had that, operated the review center, then also did a Pfizer job on the side. Professionally, I was really blessed after college.
Now, let’s focus on the bright lights of New York. What has life been like for you the past seven years in the Big Apple?
It’s really a tough place to live in. It’s really hard, especially if you’re at this stage of your career, and basically on a trainee level.
Before I took the position as a research postdoc, I was actually offered a teaching job at NYIT (New York Institute of Technology). It pays higher, but then, the decision came to choose whether I go back to teaching or pursue the research path of my career. That was the turning point.
Despite the huge difference in salary I think I want to explore the other avenues and opportunities of being a scientist, and not just settling as a teacher. My decision wasn’t really about the money. It’s about the opportunity that will open up after the postdoc, that if I go with this path, other things will open up and that’s what’s exciting.
What are the biggest lessons you’ve picked up in New York so far?
What NY teaches is simplicity in life. You’d be surprised, but it’s a very simple life over there. My life was more complicated here. It was busier, I had my review center, I had Pfizer, I had Adamson and other stuff going on. Even weekends, I was working here. But there, I can do things for myself, for my family, whatever it is that I want. I have time now for gym. Back then here, I was 220 lbs. I was huge. Now I dropped to 160.
Here, I only have time to rest, but even in bed I was working, doing presentations or something. I would expect me doing that there, but it was the reverse. I don’t know for other people, but for us, life is simpler there.
This was the same lesson I learned from my boss, a 65-year-old guy, probably older, who owns an upper eastside apartment. He’s rich, but lives a simple life. Once, he took the whole lab out on a summer outing to Coney Island Beach to swim. He was wearing rubber shoes, had to take it off, and when he did, there were holes in his socks.
This guy who has a lot of money, my boss, his wife is like VP in some company, doesn’t even care he has holes in his socks. Simplicity.
Of the long list of achievements you have attained in your life, which one are you proud of the most?
Aside from marrying my wife, I think the biggest thing was the boards and finishing college. Those things opened up a lot of opportunities, a lot of things that I never imagined myself doing, things that I never even thought I could do.
Without the education, I don’t think any of this would have happened. It’s really a big part of me. Education really has to do a lot with whatever opportunities you get in life. It is something that you cannot discount.