Eli Sayegh: On the Road from Plant Researcher to Surgeon-Scientist

Eli Sayegh’s first research experience—on top of a mountain studying the hardiness of plants—may seem a little far-removed from the field of medicine.

But the experience gave him skills in basic research that Sayegh is now putting to use—and strengthening—during his Howard Hughes Medical Research Fellowship at Northwestern, where he’s investigating a new theory about brain cancer.

Sayegh is one of only 69 medical, dental, and veterinary school students in the U.S. selected to participate in the HHMI program, a $2.5 million annual initiative with the goal of expanding the nation’s pool of physician-scientists and medically trained researchers.

“I relished being outdoors in nature and doing research in the field, but the reason I chose medicine, at least in part, was my desire to conduct research that helps alleviate human suffering,” said Sayegh.

We recently caught up with Eli through email.

You’re in the lab now of Andrew Parsa, MD, PhD, the new chair of neurological surgery at Northwestern (and a graduate of Columbia’s neurosurgery residency program). What are you studying?

I'm studying a provocative new concept about the role of the complement system in the progression of glioblastoma, an extremely aggressive and incurable form of brain cancer. Complement is a set of circulating proteins that coordinate the immune system's inflammatory response, and it is traditionally considered a beneficial immune defense against pathogens and other harmful elements, including cancer cells. Our hypothesis, supported by recent research, is that complement causes local immunosuppression in the vicinity of the tumor.

The HHMI fellowship is extremely exciting because it gives me the opportunity to build my basic science skills and critical thinking. I have the advantage of working in a lab that is actively translating its discoveries into a multi-center clinical trial using experimental immunotherapy for patients and, in turn, analyzing patient outcomes to develop and test new hypotheses.

Being a scientist sounds like a full-time job. And you want to be a surgeon, too?

My goal is to become a surgeon-scientist who conducts not only translational research that extends basic science discoveries into the clinic and operating room, but also clinical research geared at optimizing techniques and management algorithms.

My time in the hospital has been invaluable; you come to attach a particular patient, family, or interaction to anything you study, and as a researcher that gives you context, purpose, and humility.

From a scientific perspective, one of the most striking observations when working in the hospital is the amount of variability, and uncertainty to an extent, in the way medicine is practiced, e.g., the best treatment or surgical technique in a given situation—it is exciting to enter medicine at a time when evidence-based practice is so strongly emphasized.


Many P&S students take time off to do research. Was this a factor in your decision to come to Columbia?

I started at P&S in 2010 with a strong interest in research and always envisioned doing a research year as a springboard to becoming an academic surgeon. I was drawn to Columbia by the dedicated research block that is built into the curriculum through the Scholarly Project, along with the support at P&S for students' taking a fifth year, be it for research, global health, or a dual degree.

In addition, P&S has a strong reputation for student advising, which can make all the difference when choosing a research mentor—that was how I got connected to Dr. Parsa in the first place.

Last question: What’s your favorite extracurricular activity at P&S?

I've loved extracurricular life at P&S. I would probably have to choose either the Health Policy Club, which I founded as a first-year, or a cappella as a member of the P&S Ultrasounds!