Biology is Like a Puzzle: BJ Sullivan '11

Monday, Jan 23, 2017
by Alex Wheatley '16

“Biology is like a puzzle—you start by defining the edges and then fitting the pieces together inside.”  These are the words of BJ Sullivan, PhD candidate at the UCLA School of Medicine and a 2011 Princeton graduate in molecular biology.  “At first it seems like you’re trying to assemble them at random, but as your project evolves, the pieces fit together more obviously and more satisfyingly.  It gains momentum as you go.”  In other words, as you learn the system, intuition guides faster progress and greater understanding. This framework guides an excellent biologist, but is equally applicable for those in the health field. Health interventions mimic biology: define an issue, outline gaps in care or knowledge, and then piece together the people and resources needed to build a better solution. BJ has applied this framework to his work in the realms of biology and health.

At Princeton, BJ valued the interdisciplinary component of the global health program. Coming from a life sciences background, he initially found it difficult to think about health through economic, political, or anthropological lenses and aggregates of analysis. GHP helped him to develop a more holistic perspective. The program also helped him to appreciate the value of different modes of analysis; through GHP courses and travel, he learned that “spreadsheets and ethnographies both have their place in evaluating complex problems.” In this vein, he encourages students from basic science departments to “be open to the different languages and tools other disciplines use to evaluate the effectiveness of care.” Objective and discrete variables cannot capture all of life’s complexities.

One GHP experience in particular highlights this integrated approach to health. BJ spent the summer before his senior year working at a clinic in rural Sierra Leone. He was assigned to perform an epidemiological survey of chronic disease in the region. With the entire clinic staff assigned to the survey, he finished his project earlier than expected. He used his remaining weeks in Sierra Leone to conduct an anthropological assessment of amputee victims of the civil war with Rafi Frankfurter (Princeton ’13 and GHP alum). The two planned to research victims’ experiences with phantom limb pain. However, Rafi and BJ soon found that hunger was a more resonant issue in the community. In BJ’s own words, “we decided to do something a bit unorthodox—we designed and executed a pilot program for goat farming in these communities, with funding from GHP.” The experience proved extremely challenging: the two Princeton students had limited time in the country, limited funding, very little experience with the culture and lifestyle of Sierra Leone, and no experience with goat farming.  “It was frustrating and exhilarating in equal measure, but the model we developed took root in the camps and was subsequently expanded.” With ingenuity and agility, plus some funding and faith from the Global Health Program, BJ and Rafi produced an effective health intervention. BJ says that his time in Sierra Leone illuminated the enormous challenges that accompany effective interventions in a global health context. The best interventions utilize holistic views of health, addressing pressing health issues as well as their sociocultural determinants.

At present, BJ researches cancer metabolism at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA. A sixth year PhD student in the Department of Molecular and Medical Pharmacology, his dissertation explores how the metabolism of a cancer cell is affected by interactions between cancer cells and the extracellular matrix around them. After attaining his PhD, BJ hopes to work in the biotech ecosystem.  “I’ve long been impressed by the clever ways biological insight and technological innovations are deployed against disease,” he says. “I’m as interested in the institutions that develop and deliver drugs as in the science that underpins them.” BJ Sullivan will tackle the challenges of biotech in much the same way he has tackled problems in global health and cancer biology: first by defining edges and then by filling gaps, gaining momentum as he goes.

BJ is currently a PhD candidate at the UCLA School of Medicine.