The need to know

The need to know

Driven by curiosity, former auto mechanic Ryan Kohn now pursues a PhD in biology.

Bridget E. Begg | Office of Graduate Education
December 18, 2017

The name of Ryan Kohn’s son, Jayden, is tattooed in Hindi on his left outer forearm. Other tattoos on his inner arms declare “Respect” and “Loyalty.” A Latin phrase balances the tableau on his right outer forearm: “Many fear their reputation. Few their conscience.”

Kohn may stand out in the corporate milieu of Kendall Square, but he feels home at MIT. No one has ever judged me,” he says. “For as rigorous scientifically and academically as MIT is, it can be such a laid-back place. I’ve always felt included, if I wanted to be.”

Kohn, now a PhD candidate in the Jacks Lab at MIT’s Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research, has overcome a challenging adolescence, colored by economic difficulties and punctuated by personal loss. These hardships developed in him a resilient curiosity that made an unexpected cultural match between MIT and Kohn, a father and former mechanic from Boyertown, Pennsylvania.

Compelled to seek answers

After being placed in an alternative high school outside of Philadelphia for insubordination, Kohn graduated with a 1.8 GPA. His son was born three years later, while Kohn worked for six and a half years as a mechanic and manager at a Dodge dealership. After losing his job during the Great Recession, he decided to go back to school, attending his local community college on a premed track before transferring to Kutztown University after two years.

Kohn attributes some of his troubled youth to early tragedy. His older sister, Nicole, died from sepsis when she was a senior in college, just 10 days after 9/11; on the morning of her funeral, Kohn’s grandfather passed away from colon cancer. Kohn felt compelled to understand why and how these illnesses happened to his loved ones, and found himself spending his time googling the immune system, the inflammatory response, and cancer.

This habit remained with him. Kohn recalls scouring the internet again and again to understand illness when it arose near him, from his own son’s immunoglobulin A deficiency to the early-onset multiple sclerosis of a friend. Though he admits he did not yet have the core scientific knowledge to fully grasp what he read at the time, Kohn says he needed, deeply, to try.

At Kutztown University, Kohn met his undergraduate mentor Angelika Antoni, a professor who taught both oncology and immunology. According to Kohn, Antoni constantly encouraged him to pursue his curiosity despite the college’s lack of laboratory resources. In fact, Antoni paid for laboratory reagents with her own credit card, while Kohn wrote his own grants and subscribed to well-known biology journals out of his own pocket because journal access was not available through Kutztown.

These challenges shaped Kohn as an experimental biologist, requiring him to precisely understand the mechanisms of experimental techniques in order to reconstruct them in the most creative and inexpensive ways possible. Perhaps most importantly, this small-college experience cultivated Kohn’s persistent curiosity.

Diving into cancer research

In his current position at the Jacks Lab, Kohn studies cancer immunotherapy, the use of a cancer patient’s own immune system to fight cancer cells. To do this, Kohn uses a mouse model of lung cancer that mimics the natural development of human cancer: Mutations identical to those found in many human cancers are triggered in the mouse, causing a tumor to arise that originates from the mouse’s own cells. These mice, like human cancer patients, have an immune system that can recognize the cancer as aberrant. Kohn’s work focuses modifying mouse immune cells to identify and attack a tumor.

Kohn is excited by the translational potential of his work, but also eagerly defends basic research at MIT when he encounters skepticism about its practicality in his conservative hometown.

Kohn often draws on metaphors in these types of conversations. He may leverage car talk, for example, to explain why there will never be a single cure for cancer: “So your ‘check engine’ light always presents the same way … but there’s literally a multitude of different things that can [cause] it. It could be a loose gas cap for the evaporative emissions system that set it off, it could be a misfire because of a bad spark plug, it could be a catalytic converter.”

Likewise, cancer can be caused by many possible biological errors that lead to an overgrowth of cells, Kohn explains. “So just like there will never be a cure for ‘check engine light,’ there will never be a [single] cure for cancer.”

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Kohn embraces the scientific freedom of the research in his lab. His advisor, Tyler Jacks, director of the Koch Institute, an HHMI investigator, and a David H. Koch Professor of Biology at MIT, is frequently in high demand, but Kohn says he has felt fully supported in his work — including in the bold ideas and unconventional projects he undertakes in his free time.

Jacks remains accessible despite his busy schedule, according to Kohn, and his emphasis on mentorship has inspired the postdocs in the lab to mentor the graduate students. The Jacks Lab also enjoys a thriving social environment. Kohn regularly attends casual weekend parties held by his labmates, and every other year Jacks organizes a cross-campus themed scavenger hunt for which the whole lab dresses in elaborate costumes.

“Real conversations about ideas”

Outside of lab, Kohn calls himself a homebody and prefers to relax after a full day, often with a beer and a movie. He spends much of this down time with his partner Ruthlyn, whether they are exploring the Boston area or talking with friends and colleagues at local pubs.

Kohn speaks about these conversations with genuine excitement: “You meet so many different people, every religion, every gender identity, every country, every language, and you just meet these people and you get to have these cool conversations … these real conversations about ideas. Because that’s really what you want, right?”

He enthusiastically notes that, in contrast to his largely homogenous hometown, more than 200 countries are represented at MIT. Kohn says the diversity and ideals of MIT reflect his own worldview.

Despite his deep sense of belonging on campus, leaving home did lay an exceptional burden on Kohn: Twelve-year-old Jayden remains in Pennsylvania with his mother, over 300 miles away.

Kohn speaks about his son with immense pride, describing Jayden as not only an extremely talented baseball player, but as a positive, energetic, and deeply mature young person. Kohn recounts with admiration, and a trace of relief, that despite the difficulty of the distance, Jayden said his father’s coming to MIT was the right thing to do.

As for his own parents, Kohn finally feels that all the headaches he has given them over the years have been worthwhile. His intense desire for knowledge has driven him through many obstacles, connected him with like minds from all over the world, and still shows no signs of waning.

Kohn has a reputation in his lab for asking questions, big and small. Asked if he’s ever afraid to admit what he doesn’t know, he says no: “I want to know … and that’s really what it comes down to.”