Rob Mitra calls himself a “card-carrying electrical engineer,” so it may seem a tad odd that his work is piquing the interest of genomic scientists. But for Mitra, it’s just a natural extension of his engineering days.
Armed with two degrees in electrical engineering, Mitra was working on his PhD in the same subject at MIT. His master’s work had entailed “testing steel roller bearings,” he says. “While the work went well, I found it pretty unsatisfying at the end of the day.” So over the summer, he volunteered at a hospital to make more of an impact in people’s lives. Afterward, he decided to take a freshman biology class — and wound up with Eric Lander as a professor. “I just really thought biology was going through a revolution,” Mitra recalls.
He stuck with engineering, looking for biology advisors. But in the days before microarrays came on the scene, he says, “it wasn’t so hip to be an engineer and into biology. I talked to a lot of professors and they didn’t want to give me a job because I had never picked up a pipette.”
Mitra wound up working for the Palo Alto Institute for Molecular Medicine, a nonprofit lab, for two and a half years before returning to MIT. His thesis committee steered him to George Church’s lab, where he got into PCR colony research. “People would spend a week thinking about it and then they’d quit,” Church says of the project he had tried to start before. “When Rob came … he had the engineering mindset that it didn’t have to be fascinating biology right away for it to be interesting.”
The PCR colony research became known as polonies, a technology that could be used for genotyping, sequencing, haplotyping, and finding alternate splice variants. Mitra, 32, is still heavily involved in polony work and, to some extent, it dictated his move after MIT. Just a few months ago, Mitra headed to Washington University to start his own lab — soon to become part of the sequencing center there — where polonies will get plenty of attention. He seriously considered taking a job in industry, but figured he would have to give up his polony work if he did so. “I like the independence of academics,” he says. “The polony technology is just in its infancy and I think it needs more people and more labs to develop it.”