Student Spotlight: Tony Law

Student Spotlight: Tony Law

I recently caught up with Tony Law, a graduating MD-PhD student who will begin his Otolaryngology/Head & Neck Surgery residency at the University of Washington in July.  As someone transitioning between a completed career as a medical student researcher and a future career as an Academician, I thought Tony could provide valuable insight into the value and challenges of medical student research. 

What kind of research did you do for you PhD?

Cellular signaling is, in large part, organized by the formation of large macromolecular complexes.  These complexes are 'glued' together by protein-protein interfaces driven small scaffolding which may offer a novel target for future drug therapy.    My research focused on understanding the factors that dictate protein-protein binding.  Our work shows that not only is protein structure necessary for these protein-protein interaction, but that fast dynamics (or protein wiggles) are essential to understanding how and what proteins bind.

What background did you have in that area before starting?  What skills did you have to learn as you got going?

My undergraduate degree was in Physics and I had a Master's in Biophysics before starting my PhD training.  Both of those degrees served as an excellent foundation to be built upon in my graduate career.  The PhD, by design, is less focused on regurgitation of information and focused more on the process of developing a sound scientific question and fully answering that question.  For me that meant thoroughly knowing the literature in my field (and being able to judge individual papers’ merits), learning advanced Biophysical techniques (like NMR) and being comfortable with a plethora of statistical methods.  An unexpected skill that I learned during my graduate career was the ability to communicate better, both in writing and presentation format.

What first got you interested in this type of research?

Coming into graduate school I knew I wanted to study biophysics of some sort.  I felt it really had a good blend of the extremely analytical side of physics and relevance to human health that naturally comes with biological studies.  The research I ultimately ended up doing sets the foundation for understanding how future drugs might interact with protein targets as well as tells us a great deal about how proteins work in general.  It was perfect for an MD-PhD student with a physics background.

What challenges did you face while doing your research?

One of the hardest challenges in research is dealing with negative results and/or failed experiments.  After a lot of energy and time has been put into a project it is draining to have poor results.  Repeated poor results necessitate some measure of endurance and attention to detail.  It’s usually here that sloppiness can creep into science.

How do you plan on incorporating research into your career?

I'm currently pursuing a career in Otolaryngology/Head & Neck (ENT) surgery and research will be an integral aspect of my future career.  Specifically, head and neck cancer research offers many opportunities for someone interested in structural biology.

What are your hobbies?


I enjoy playing the piano, basketball with friends and reading when time allows.

Elliott Robinson focuses on understanding how a genetic variant of the mu opioid receptor alters the rewarding properties of alcohol and affects neural pathways involved in positive reinforcement and addiction.  Using intracranial self-stimulation (ICSS), Elliott measures the reward-potentiating effects of drugs of abuse in a humanized mouse model of the A118G mu opioid receptor gene (OPRM1) polymorphism. He will also use whole cell patch clamp recording to investigate how this polymorphism alters dopaminergic neurotransmission in brain reward pathways. The goal of this research is to gain a better understanding of the mechanisms through which genetic differences moderate risk for developing alcohol use disorders.


Audrey Verde is currently researching the neurobiology of alcoholism and how alcohol addiction impacts episodic memory circuits.  Employing diffusion tensor imaging (DTI), a magnetic resonance imaging technique (MRI) measuring the diffusion of water molecules in tissue, Audrey is capable of mapping axonal degeneration along white matter tracts and identifying possible disconnects in structural connectivity.  She will also be using functional MRI records to monitor the blood oxygenation level dependence (BOLD) signal to determine the functional connectivity within the episodic memory network.  By better understanding the interaction between alcoholism neurobiology and episodic memory the efficacy of the clinical approach to alcoholism and addiction disorders can be modified to accommodate the degenerative changes of the disease


Doug Ornoff studies pulmonary processes resulting from damage to the alveolus, specifically Alveolar Type 1 cells and their roles in ion transport and alveolar fluid balance. Unfortunately, current technology does not allow for ideal alveolar cell culture models.  Doug plans to remedy this by developing and optimizing microwell arrays with an air-liquid interface that would specialize in growing AT1 cells.  Cultured AT1 cells will be manipulated with pharmacologic inhibitors targeting Na+ and Cl- ion transport through specific channels while measuring the height of apical surface fluid resulting from free water movement through aquaporin channels.  Clinically, this information will help develop treatment plans for serious conditions like Acute Respiratory Distress Syndrome (ARDS) which has a mortality of 50% in certain patient groups and is currently treated with mechanical ventilation and supportive therapy.


Kate Hacker is studying genetic and epigenetic alterations in clear cell Renal Cell Carcinoma (ccRCC).  Recent reports by other groups have identified frequent mutations in epigenetic-modifying genes in ccRCC.  Kate’s project involves elucidating the downstream effects of these mutations on chromatin architecture, histone modifications, gene expression, and clinical outcome



By Matt Forgues