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Chromosomes and Courageous Choice: A Conversation with Dr. Anil Menon

by Lin Abigail Tan

The other day, I had the great privilege of interviewing Dr. Anil Menon, molecular genetics professor and founder/director of our UC Medical Sciences program. We opened with a lighthearted exchange of trivia questions (the capital of Mongolia is Ulaanbaatar, by the way) and fun tidbits (Dr. Menon’s secret talent is singing in the shower without causing acute neighborhood destruction). After a few laughs, we proceeded to the interview. I first asked about Dr. Menon’s education, including how he became interested in science and why he came to the University of Cincinnati. 

“I was always very curious and interested in science since childhood. I was fascinated by the Apollo landings on the moon,” he said. “My interest led me to work with a guy studying molecular biology, [a field] that was just getting started around the time I was entering college.” 

He worked with UC professor Dr. Jerry Lingrel, researching in one of the labs that contributed to the discovery of mRNA (!). After he finished his PhD, he went to Harvard and completed his postdoctoral fellowship. Around that time, the University of Cincinnati was starting a cardiovascular system program, and he was delighted to be recruited back to the university to support it. 

Research has been an integral element in Dr. Menon’s career. At Harvard, he worked in the lab that cloned the gene for Huntington’s disease. He was also a member of the team that cloned the gene for neurofibromatosis (a condition characterized by abnormal pigmentation and growth of tumors along nerves in the brain, skin, and other parts of the body), and he helped map Chromosome 14 for the Human Genome Project. Dr. Menon followed up these incredible accomplishments with a simple expression of gratitude, saying, “How lucky I was to have so much fun doing science.” 

Additionally, he spoke about his work with Dr. Frank McCormack studying lymphangioleiomyomatosis (LAM), a rare and devastating lung disease primarily affecting young women. They discovered a gene in the pathway of the disease, and afterwards realized that an existing drug could be repurposed to block the defective protein.

 “Before, women with these tumors were given a prognosis of six months. Now, those same women are still alive today,” Dr. Menon stated. “Dr. McCormack and I give a class to our medical students on how clinical research can save the lives of patients. It’s a very, very powerful thing, one of the most validating aspects of my research career.” 

I then asked about Dr. Menon’s establishment of the MedSci program. He founded the program in 2010 after seeing his own children’s struggles with finding their paths in life. “There are so many voices you hear and somehow, you have to create that path. It moved me a lot, [and] when the opportunity arose, I decided to switch from a career in pure research to one of helping students. Each student we have is no different from my own children; they are somebody’s child. Our children are the future of the world, and what a privilege it is to help students create their paths based on their individual interests.” 

The Medical Sciences program prepares students for a variety of health careers, and I wanted to know if Dr. Menon had a common goal for all of us to achieve. He said, “I hope all students have the power of courageous choice. When a person starts a career, they come in carrying the psychological projections of their parents, teachers, and community. Sometimes they’ll be faced with terrifying decisions, crises, the choice between bad and bad. For a young person to have the ability to learn ‘courageous choice’, though, is the best blessing anyone can have. The unifying purpose in MedSci is exercising the COURAGE muscle.” 

I asked if Dr. Menon had a favorite thing about the MedSci program, to which he replied, “Yes, an eight-letter word, where the beginning and ending letters are the same.” 

(Quick note: He told me that the first ten people to send me the answer will get a KitKat bar from his office when we get back to campus!  )

Anil Menon

Dr. Anil Menon, Program Director of UC’s Medical Sciences program

When asked about the impact of the COVID-19 crisis on the future of education, Dr. Menon framed his answer in two parts:

“On the macro scale, there has never been such a great interest in science and medicine,” he declared. “Healthcare professions have been elevated to a place where they rightfully belong. People are asking ‘How do you make a vaccine? What’s a gamma globulin? What is an RNA virus?’ These are the very topics our students are studying in class. 

“At UC, we’ll likely have a hybrid where we have synchronous learning, with Echo360, rotated with a big classroom with about twenty students spaced six feet apart. We’ve done this for years at the medical school, students texting me questions in their PJs.” 

As for laboratory classes, a fundamental component of the MedSci curriculum, Dr. Menon said, “We’ll have social distancing. The safety of our students is number one. We’re being very methodical and scientific in our approach.” 

I then proceeded to ask him about any interesting hobbies he’s been cultivating during quarantine and was not disappointed. 

“When I was younger, I was a racewalker. In 2017, I walked on this trail that went from the South of France to the tip of Spain. It was called the Camino de Santiago, 500 miles in four weeks in the summer of 2017. During this time, I go walking and get lost in my thoughts…my neighbors understand if I don’t wave to them.” 

He also emphasized his love of reading. “The most recent book I’ve read was 1776 by David McCullough. It was very wonderful. I also just read a biography of Frank Sinatra. I didn’t realize he grew up in New Jersey, where George Washington fought in the Battle of Trenton…they both connect!” 

Lastly, I inquired about his ikigai. On College Day at the beginning of last year, Dr. Menon mentioned the word ikigai, or “reason for being,” and discussed the concept with us during our freshman one-on-one meetings. I wanted to know how he came across such a fascinating word and what it meant to him. 


“I had a very, very close collaborator and friend for the past thirty years. He is a neurosurgeon from Japan. He told me about it, about finding one’s best self, when I was in my postdoc. I was drawn to the idea of creating a life with intentionality, and I’ve done it for the past thirty years. I’ve created a habit of drawing my ikigai diagram, every year between Christmas and New Year’s, and it gives forward motion to my life.

“Each of our 75 trillion cells is undergoing mitosis, membrane transport…it’s a huge and lucky thing we are alive. My goal for our students is to live a life of gratitude and a life of setting good, courageous goals for themselves. 

“The MedSci program will always support every single MedSci student, come h*ll or high water. We want to create a culture where choice is valued, and I want our students to know we are always here for them.” 

Thank you, Dr. Menon, for sharing your vast knowledge and enlightened outlook on life. We are thankful for all the dreams you have given to our Medical Sciences program, and we strive everyday to be individuals of lifelong learning and courageous choice. 

Images Cited 

Dr. Anil Menon Professional Profile

Japanese Travellers Blog

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