It’s a sunny yet frigid day in March when I walk up four flights of stairs and tentatively open a fire door to get to the Penn State Center for Eukaryotic Gene Regulation located in Frear North Building. Around the corner and amidst several rows filled with laboratory equipment and focused individuals is Ryan Henrici. He sees me and smiles, and I walk over to his lab station.
“I’m just filling these gels. I’ll be done in just a minute,” Henrici said.
Upon finishing up his mysterious gels, he gets up to wash his hands, and I am surprised by his serious height. Henrici, at 6-foot-9, is probably the tallest person I’ve ever seen on campus.
“Everyone in my family is huge. My sister is 6-foot-2 and she’s getting married soon. Her fiance is 6-foot-11, so he makes me feel short, which doesn’t happen often,” he laughed.
Henrici, from Wayne, Pa., was recently among the students mentioned in Business Insider’s “18 Incredibly Impressive Students At Penn State.” Though he spends hours a day in the lab, he took a break from his lab work to sit down and talk to me about his medical research.
When we got to a conference room, his principal investigator, Song Tan, steps in the room to tell me that Henrici has just been awarded the Barry M. Goldwater Scholarship, which is a national scholarship offered to students pursuing research in science, mathematics and engineering.
The research conducted by Henrici and his lab focuses on the biological structure of chromatin enzymes to see how these relate to chromosomes which may cause diseases like cancer. He recently made a breakthrough in his research but is unable to offer much detail on the subject, but hopes the findings will be published in the future.
“It’s cool for one, to work on the same level as Ph.D. students. It was very much a joint effort, and it’s cool to see it all come together,” he said. “I hope that in the future these works will aid to combat diseases like cancer.”
Independent from his research, Henrici is working intensively on spreading knowledge on an international level on Avian Influenza. He will be attending the Five Eyes Analytic Training Conference this week held at the University of Mississippi to deliver a presentation titled “Risk Informing the Policy and Intelligence Community About Gain of Function Avian Influenza Research.” The conference will host representatives from Australia, New Zealand, the United Kingdom, the United States and several other nations in Europe to discuss national and global security topics.
“I’m looking forward to interfacing with people at the top of their fields and people who shape policy: the people who have a direct impact on world events,” he said.
From what I could understand, this is Henrici’s explanation of his presentation topic for people less knowledgeable in the medical field (like myself):
“Avian influenza, or the bird flu, is currently transferred only among bird populations. However, there is a push in the scientific field to see what gene mutation in the flu strain could cause the influenza to be passed along to humans. There has since been a strong debate regarding ethic considerations of creating a mutant gene of the bird flu.”
Henrici concluded through modeling that the likelihood of a mutant strain escaping a lab and creating a man-made pandemic is much higher than a natural outbreak and hopes to inform those attending the conference about the ongoing controversy.
He said that when selecting a university to attend, he chose Penn State in part because the faculty and research being conducted here would better prepare him for the future. Looking forward, Henrici plans to attend medical school to conduct medical research, with a hefty list of medical schools in mind.
Aside from research, Henrici is also involved in Springfield THON and was a member of THON’s Hospitality Committee this past year. He manages to balance all of his schoolwork, research and extracurricular activities by prioritizing, staying on top of his schoolwork and scheduling everything to the minute. And to the delight of the Penn State female population, he is single!
In his “actual” free time, he enjoys playing guitar with his band from home, hanging out with friends, cycling and swimming. He explained that he tries to get some sort of exercise in every morning, though understandably it doesn’t always happen. Impressively, he manages to still get about eight hours of sleep every night.
“I pride myself on not being a coffee addict,” he said.
So why all this commitment to medical research? Henrici explains that his mother’s health was a huge push to pursue an education in medicine.
After an eighth grade track meet, Henrici came home to find his mother lying unresponsive on the couch. After she was taken to the hospital via ambulance, the doctors found brain swelling in her brain and kept her in the hospital for about six months, after which she was correctly diagnosed with Neuromyelitis Optica (NMO), a variant of Multiple Sclerosis (MS).
Prior to that episode, his mother had been the “wild and crazy mom who was doing everything,” until she faced breathing problems which had been diagnosed as asthma. She would then be incorrectly diagnosed with MS, prior to receiving a correct NMO diagnosis.
Though NMO is a variant of MS, Henrici noted that the disease needs to be treated much differently, and without a particular blood test designed by the Mayo Clinic, her condition would not have been properly diagnosed.
“I learned from a very young age the impact that doctors and specifically medical researchers can have on patients’ and families’ lives,” Henrici said. “And so without the blood tests designed by the Mayo Clinic, my mother would never have been treated appropriately treated, and her condition would be really bad or she might be dead.”
During his mother’s treatment, she fell into a coma, after which she was paralyzed from the neck down. Since then, she has regained use of her arms, but not without cognitive defects. From her experiences, Henrici knew early on that he wanted to be involved in medical research.
“I know it’s kind of cliche to say ‘Oh, that one experience shaped my life,’ but it really did,” he said. “I just saw that without medical research, clinical medicine would really be nothing and it wouldn’t be as effective as it is now. Just through that single experience I knew that I would want to get involved in medical research because it is so transformative for patients’ and families’ lives.”