Utilizing New Technology to Change Medicine

Authored By: wells438 02/28/2024

Portrait of Quincy Gu


For Quincy Gu, Ph.D. in Bioinformatics and Computational Biology (BICB), studying medicine was always the plan. Growing up in a household surrounded by physicians prepared him to follow in their footsteps. But a lifelong battle with a chronic condition for which there are limited treatments made pursuing a career in medicine even more personal for Gu. “My motivation for studying medicine stems from my desire to alleviate the suffering of the patients.”

Gu and his family knew of Mayo Clinic and its reputation in medicine. While searching for undergraduate opportunities, proximity to Mayo Clinic led Gu to the University of Minnesota Twin Cities, with the goal of applying to medical school. However, being an international student presented a problem. “Most medical schools don’t take international graduates, so I had to make an alternative plan.” Gu instead decided to get his Ph.D. first, then apply to medical schools. Following his love of mathematics out of undergrad, he applied to a related Ph.D. program. “I originally was accepted in 2018 into Biostatistics, but found that program wasn’t a good fit, as it was theoretical, not the applied science that I was really interested in.” In 2019, BICB faculty member Dr. Yuk Sham suggested that Gu take a look at the University of Minnesota Rochester. It didn’t take long for him to realize that Rochester was the place for him. “UMR’s BICB program places significant emphasis on forging connections and fostering collaborations.” For Gu, this was the feature that set UMR apart. “One of the program’s distinguishing features is in its collaborations with institutions such as Mayo Clinic, The Hormel Institute, IBM, National Marrow Donor Program, the Brain Sciences Center and other industry leaders. These institutional-level partnerships profoundly benefit students engaged in interdisciplinary research fields.”

Once in the BICB program at UMR, things really began to fall into place for Gu and his career trajectory. “The Artificial Intelligence (AI) work being done at Mayo Clinic, partnership with Google, abundance of resources and Mayo Clinic’s extensive medical datasets has helped me form strong connections with medical science in the computational domains,” he explains. “Mayo Clinic’s Digital Pathology (DP) research is unparalleled—I could not point to any other institutions where I would rather conduct my doctoral training in DP.”

These research connections with AI, DP and teams led by Dr. Steven Hart, Dr. Thomas Flotte and Dr. Chady Meroueh from Mayo Clinic, and Dr. Ryan Gillard from Google, are leading to great strides in the field of melanoma and other cancers. “Using high resolution hematoxylin and eosin (H&E)-stained whole slide images (WSIs), the developed progressive context encoders anomaly detection model, P-CEAD, has achieved a remarkable pixel-level accuracy of 89% for segmenting melanoma regions within the WSIs. What does that mean? This novel approach has the potential to streamline the practice of tissue slide review in clinical settings, consequently enhancing the diagnostic accuracy of clinical cancer assessments through an AI-driven automated pipeline.” After their success in applying this process to melanoma, the teams are looking to apply this technology to other types of cancers as well. “We have already transferred this process to segment malignant colorectal cancer tumors, achieving a pixel-level accuracy of 90%, and are looking into lung cancers next.”

Gu’s time in the lab doing research inspired him to be part of the committee organizing this year’s Scientific Innovation Through Diverse Perspectives Conference. This studentled biomedical research conference gives Mayo Clinic’s graduate students, Ph.D. students and medical students the opportunity to organize a research conference, which is no small task.

Additional opportunities have helped Gu feel more prepared for his future career. “I’m learning how to write a good grant and find funding. I’m part of a group of reviewers for abstract submissions for Medical Image Computing and Computer Assisted Intervention 2023, as well as the UKbased international conference on Medical Image Understanding and Analysis.

While the amazing connections he has forged and research work that Gu has done have led to success in the lab, his advisor at Mayo Clinic, Dr. Steven Hart, has been instrumental in making sure that Gu will leave this program wellrounded and set up for success in his career. “Dr. Hart helped me learn to sell my research, how to tell a story about the research. He pushed me to practice introducing my work to the non-science public. If you can’t introduce your work to kids, you don’t really understand your work 100%.” And, Gu says, Dr. Hart’s influence has gone beyond academics. “He’s taught me the significance of celebrating each accomplishment and embracing failures as learning opportunities,” a mindset helpful in all facets of life, not just science.

Gu’s practice in talking about his research work in an approachable way to those not in the sciences paid off when he presented his work virtually at the 2021 Pathology Visions conference. “Audience really matters, and this helped me when I was talking to people in industry.” At this conference, Gu spent time presenting his work to representatives from medical industries, leaning on the advice from Dr. Hart. “Industry professionals seek out the unique aspects and advantages of your research, along with indications of its commercial potential.” Gu’s clear presentation caught the attention of pharmaceutical giant Roche. “Roche scientists loved my work, invited me to work with them as an intern, then eventually as a part-time employee and now I’m working with them as a fulltime imaging scientist.”

The internship with Roche was not only supported by UMR, but encouraged. “An internship is part of the [BICB] program requirements,” Gu says. “Not many programs have this feature.” Requiring an internship is just one of the benefits of UMR that Gu hopes prospective students considering UMR for a Ph.D. program appreciate.

As Gu looks to the future, he is most interested in applying his work to the medical field in a meaningful way. After successfully defending his doctoral thesis, he is now working with Roche Sequencing Solutions, expanding the vision of what a Ph.D. is and does. “I do not have a strong interest in being a professor. I want to see my work become a real product that can be applied. I’m more interested in new things happening in the field. How can we apply the new tech to meet medical demands? How can we integrate AI advancements into medical contexts? And I think Roche is going to give me the options to do that.”

Is medical school out of the question? Not yet. “Medical school is still part of the plans. I haven’t decided if I’m going to be a practitioner or a researcher. I love talking to patients, and find that fulfilling. It would deepen my knowledge of the medical field and allow me to see challenges and problems, and would give me more ideas of what I can do to push the tech sector services to make a better health care plan.”

Dr. Gu and his beloved Corgi named Leena are now gearing up to relocate to California, where he will start his full time work with Roche. “Leena loves the snow. I don’t. But I have really enjoyed my time in Rochester. The ethos of ‘The needs of the patient come first’ will eternally reside in my heart. I believe this sentiment harmonizes seamlessly with Roche’s mission of ‘Doing now what patients need next’.” Wherever Dr. Quincy Gu’s path takes him next, snowy or not, he will continue to make an impact in scientific discoveries and the field of computational pathology. 

Read more stories from the Fall 2023 Alumni Magazine: The Kettle