Olivier Noel
Photo courtesy of Olivier Noel, PhD

Interview with Olivier Noel, PhD

Burcu Darst had the opportunity to interview Haitian native Olivier Noel, PhD, a sixth year in the MD/PhD Medical Scientist Training Program at Penn State College of Medicine. Before completing the PhD portion of his training, he founded his own company, DNAsimple, which streamlines genetics research by matching DNA donors to researcher studies investigating particular traits. He was recently recognized in Forbes’ 30 Under 30 Science list and received a $200,000 investment on ABC’s Shark Tank for his company.

Could you tell us about your company, DNAsimple?

DNAsimple is a marketplace where researchers, particularly those in genetics/genomics, can find and obtain DNA and other specimens from the patient population that they are studying or looking for. On the other end, anyone can sign up to be matched to research studies that they potentially qualify for based on an array of characteristics (age, race, conditions, etc.), provide samples—anonymously—and get compensated for it. DNAsimple connects researchers to sample donors, simplifying the enormous burden of patient recruitment for researchers while helping to accelerate their studies.

What aspects of your training made it possible for you to start a company during graduate school?

I did not actually get any formal business training in medical or graduate school. However, I’d say that the scientific review process is quite similar and applicable to the business side of things. You have to carefully analyze a problem and come up with solutions that need to be supported with hard evidence and vetted by peers using standardized and accepted methods. So inherently, I think scientists would make great business minds or analysts. However, the execution I think is what I had to pick up from the outside and sort of learn on the job.

Which skills or characteristics have you found to be the most useful in achieving your accomplishments so far?

This is a bit tough to answer, as different situations really require a different set of skills and characteristics. Sometimes being an expert or really good at something makes you able to be a leader. Other times, the smart thing to do is to identify what it is that you cannot do as effectively and know when to rely on others to reach a set goal. But I do think that being thoughtful, hardworking, tenacious, and dynamic have been vital elements and characteristics in helping me achieve my accomplishments so far.

Finding the highly sought work-life balance can already be challenging as an MD/PhD student. What does your work-life balance look like with the addition of running a company?

Well, the way I look at it is that something’s got to give, and in my case it is sleep. It’s obviously been a lot of work and responsibilities but I also try to incorporate some fun in there to keep some sort of balance. For example, I coach a U17 boys’ soccer team at least once a week, and I also play in a local league once a week. Achieving work-life balance can be hard but can also be done if we treat it as just as an important element of life, which I try to do.

What experiences while growing up in Haiti have influenced your passion for science and your career path?

After school as a high school senior, I used to volunteer and teach older folks who never had a chance to go to school how to read and write. Although that was not clinical in nature, it made me realize that I particularly enjoy working and helping folks achieve a goal or feel better about themselves, and I think that translates well into medicine. As far as the science part, I can still remember a simple decantation and purification experiment in my first chemistry class and thinking that chemistry was the coolest thing to do. Ultimately, combining the two passions of science and medicine continued to make sense to me as I moved along in my educational path and continues to now that I am a physician scientist in training.

What motivated you to come to the US for your academic training?

A number of things really, but the fundamental reason was for more opportunities to maximize my potential and be able to have access to the educational system here. I knew in order to be in the forefront of technological and scientific advances, I had to be where the best people and institutions are, and so it was always a dream and goal of mine to continue to pursue my studies here in the States.

With your experience in the medical, research, and business fields, where do you see yourself having the greatest impact in the future?

I’d like to continue to do and combine all three, really, and I think it makes sense to do so. My ideal scenario is being able to see a specific patient population and generate research studies based on what I see in the clinic and the need in the field. Ultimately, I want to take that knowledge and what has been discovered on the bench and bring it into the home of patients through companies. Too often I think great research findings “die” in awesome grants, papers, and prizes, and the population never actually get a chance to benefit from these findings.

Do you have any plans to use your training and expertise to have a positive impact in Haiti?

Absolutely! I’ve been bouncing off a few ideas in the past year or so in terms of how I can have an impact in a number of areas. Ultimately, I want to be involved in leveraging some of the available technology in the medical and scientific field to impact the health care and scientific industries in Haiti.

Any last words of advice or tips for trainees interested in pursuing a similar career?

Don’t limit yourself to what’s being given and presented to you. There are a lot of things that can be done with an MD or a PhD that deviate from the traditional residency/postdoc/assistant professor route. And so I think some of us need to venture out a bit and really find out what it is that they really want to do and how they can have an impact on others.

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