Pulling Back the Curtain: Elli Papaemmanuil, PhD

Elli Papaemmanuil, PhD
Assistant Professor in Computational Oncology, Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, New York

In this edition, Elli Papaemmanuil, PhD, talks about the varied childhood experiences that resulted from her father’s Greek military service, and how the Human Genome Project sparked her early interest in DNA.


Tell us about your childhood. Where did you grow up?

I’m from Greece. My father was in the military, and during my childhood I had to change schools every year or two. One year we might be living in Athens, and the next we could be living in a village on a remote island in the Aegean Sea. My dad worked closely with the Greek diplomatic service, so we also spent a lot of time in the U.K. where he trained, as well as in Italy and Germany.

My childhood was defined by movement, change, and diversity. The type of education I received and the language in which I was being taught changed almost every year. This led to a fragmented education: One year, I was at an international school alongside the children of European diplomats, and the next I was in a school that didn’t have enough teachers to cover every class.

At the same time, it was exciting. It gave me an understanding of and appreciation for diversity. My friends came from many different backgrounds, cultures, and religions. With so much change, I had to learn to be very adaptable, which is something that’s important in a scientific career.

Where was your favorite place to live?

In hindsight, I made the most of wherever I was. Of course, moving came with a little bit of trauma each time, because it was stressful to find myself in a new school every September, surrounded by kids I did not know. I experienced separation from my friends, and even from my family when my parents divorced and I continued to live with my father. I learned to adapt to new environments and make new friends.

Were you interested in science and medicine when you were younger?

One of my earliest exposures to science was at an American high school I attended while we lived in Italy. Fortunately, the school was equipped to conduct practical laboratory classes. We did small experiments, like decalcifying a bone with vinegar. Being in a lab sparked my interest in learning more about science. The applied component of conducting experiments in a lab was something that many Greek schools did not have.

From there, my interest in medicine grew, but I also wanted to be of service. One of my early goals was to work at the intersection of medicine and humanitarian activities. I was always interested in reading about efforts that clinical care teams were implementing in Africa, Southeast Asia, and other areas with limited resources.

“[As scientists], we all want to be successful and produce high-impact results. It’s important that we don’t sacrifice the quality of our work.”

Did growing up in so many places spark your interest in humanitarian work?

It must have had an effect. I remember, for one of my dad’s appointments, we lived on an island that closely borders Turkey where there was a migration route for immigrants. Often, the Greek army would rescue migrants who were trying to cross the Aegean and help them access health care or bring them to local schools. In that setting, I witnessed communities benefitting from the attention and assistance of organizations like Doctors Without Borders. I felt strongly that when I grew up, I wanted to be part of such efforts.

And, in fact, that is something I pursued when I started my PhD at the University of London in 2004 – the same year that the massive tsunami hit Southeast Asia. I paused my studies to travel there and volunteer with a local nongovernmental organization for a couple of months. I was helping a community that had been devastated by the tsunami. After struggling to get to a refugee camp to identify members of their families, most returned to their community to rebuild their lives through support of microfinance organizations in Europe.

What did a typical day volunteering look like?

Every evening, we would meet and divide ourselves into three teams, each with a different function: clearing and cleaning the local reservoir to provide fresh water to the community; sourcing materials to enable rebuilding and replanting; and auditing the community’s financial needs. I participated in all three, but especially auditing – finding out what jobs people had, how they made a living, and how much money each household needed. For example, if a fisherman who made a living by both fishing and taking tourists on day trips lost his boat, then I would help determine how to get him a boat, or one to share, so that he could start supporting his family again.

It was one of the most powerful experiences of my life. At that point, I strongly considered stopping my PhD to pursue a career in international development. In the end, science won and I continued my PhD, but it was a difficult decision.

By being on the front line, helping individuals directly, I could see tangible results. In science, it can be difficult to visualize the long-term effects your work will have. Even though scientific research absolutely improves human lives, you do not see immediate results. It took a while to navigate the process of finding meaning and appreciating where I wanted to be in this landscape.

When you decided to pursue science, what brought you to genetics and hematology?

As I was growing up, I developed a strong interest in DNA. The first draft of the Human Genome Project was announced as I was finishing school in 2003. I wasn’t participating in genetics research in school, but I had actively followed the project on the news, trying to learn more about it. This motivated me to go to the U.K. and pursue studies in human genetics.

While at university, I could see how technology was transforming genetics research in those early days. The genome is so vast and contains so much information, but we were at the very early stages, looking at single parts of the genome. From the beginning, my choice in PhD studies was informed by where I had access to the latest technology that would give me the most comprehensive view of a human genome. I wanted to map out human genomes in relation to disease and, of course, that most frequently happens in the context of cancer. So, I pursued studies in cancer genomics at the University of London’s Institute of Cancer Research with Richard Houlston, FRS, FMedSci.

Originally, I focused on trying to map germline mutations in colorectal cancer, which is an adult cancer. But I was really interested in studying pediatric malignancies, and leukemias are the most frequent cancers in the pediatric context. I had the fortune to be in the same building as Sir Melvyn Greaves, FMedSci, FRS, a real legend, leader, and mentor in the field of leukemia. As I was wrapping up my PhD, I had the opportunity to work on a collaborative project with Mel, and that’s how I started studying leukemia genomes.

Tell us more about your relationship with your mentors.

My scientific career has, without a doubt, been influenced by Mel, then shaped and molded by Peter Campbell, PhD, who was my postdoctoral mentor at the Wellcome Sanger Institute near Cambridge. I also led a collaborative project with Mel and Peter in my time at the Sanger and continued to work in many different areas of hematology, including adult leukemias. We were using the latest DNA sequencing technologies to discover new cancer genes. In collaboration with physician scientists and members of the International Cancer Genome Consortium, I experienced for the first time how our genetic discoveries can directly inform patient care through the characterization of novel biomarkers and the development of clinical decision support guidelines. It was through this process that I realized the dream of combining science with having a clinical impact. I got hooked!

Through both of my mentors, I developed a compass for morality and quality in conducting scientific research. By that, I mean focusing on the quality of data and the implication of your findings and seeking to understand what the data mean for the diagnosis and treatment of diseases. This scientific ethos came through a combination of my mentors leading by example and dropping words of wisdom on a day-to-day basis. Mel also is a huge advocate for career-life balance, although I think I fail him in that department more often than I would like.

That is probably something that many young scientists struggle with.

Yes. For young scientists, there is such pressure to be better than anyone else, faster than anyone else, and more productive than anyone else. Sometimes, that is a reasonable pressure because of funding and career advancement, but it can distract from the practice of conducting science. Science is competitive by default. We all want to be successful and produce high-impact results. There is a lot of responsibility in our hands – responsibility to our patients who participate in studies, the funding bodies who support the research, and our fellow scientists. It’s important that we don’t sacrifice the quality of our work and the depth of our understanding. If we focus on quality, success will ensue.

Dr. Papaemmanuil surfing in Rincón, Puerto Rico.

What do you do in your free time?

As one might guess, I spend a significant proportion of my time attending to work matters. I live far away from my family, so I dedicate a lot of my free time to being in contact with them by whatever means I have, especially now. I love spending time with my friends – cooking, dining, anything that brings people together around the table. I’m a big foodie and cocktail lover, and I experiment a lot with food. Before COVID-19, there was more traveling and theater in my life.

And, while I’m not very good at it, I love surfing. Any time I have the opportunity, I try to get on a board and paddle in the water. I tend to do more paddling than actually catching waves.

When did you pick up surfing?

I started late in life, as a post-doc. I loved it. It is the only time I stop thinking about anything else other than the sea, the waves, and my board. It was challenging to find time because I couldn’t get to the water every weekend. Now that I’m living in New York, it’s more feasible, because I can drive a half an hour and be at a beach. In the middle of the lockdown, I spent a week by the beach. It was the only time that it felt like nothing had changed.

What are you most looking forward to doing when the pandemic is over?

I’m going to rent a big villa with a swimming pool on a remote Greek island and throw a huge party.

Dr. Papaemmanuil with members of her lab.