Dr. Mark Ziats is an internal medicine physician resident at Michigan Medicine. Over the course of his education and training, Dr. Ziats has dipped his toes in multiple career pools. Following the completion of his Bachelor of Science in Biochemistry and Chemistry coursework at Clemson University, he served briefly as a legislative intern to the U.S. House of Representatives. He then completed a postbac fellowship at the NIH, received a MD and PhD in Genetics through Cambridge University and the NIH Graduate Partnership Program, completed a biotechnology entrepreneurship program, and founded his own company, Creative Bioinformatics. During his graduate work at the NICHD, Dr. Ziats worked in Dr. Owen Rennert’s lab studying long non-coding RNAs in the autistic brain.
In honor of our final issue of the “Think Outside the Box” series, Dr. Ziats has answered several questions for The NICHD Connection. Enjoy the voyage through his diverse career path so far!
It’s hard to tell if you started school wanting to be a scientist, doctor, policy-maker, or entrepreneur! When you were an undergraduate, did you have an “end game” in mind? What were your original goals as your were working on your bachelor degree?
I always wanted to do a lot of different things, and set out intending to pursue many different avenues—always was very interested in the intersection of medicine/science and business. I was also practical though, so was very focused on getting into medical school at that time. My original goals are still the same—be my own boss, only spend time working on things I find interesting, create new value.
What prompted you to serve as a legislative intern in the U.S. House of Representatives? What did you do there?
With advanced placement (AP) credits from high school, I was on track to graduate early by one semester. I was looking for something to do during the extra semester, and figured I would spend the time on something different than the rest of my undergraduate training in science. I looked into a few different possibilities, but when the U.S. House of Representatives opportunity came up it seemed great—I have always been interested in public policy. I was an intern in a congressman’s office, doing random low-level tasks, but it was a neat exposure to a totally different world. Because I did it as part of an educational program through Clemson, I had a lot of additional opportunities to attend hearings, meet with people, etc., in addition to the day-to-day work.
After undergraduate training, you decided to pursue a postbac fellowship. What made you decide to go that direction, and during your postbac year, what did you learn about your career aspirations? Did a year doing research affect your long-term goals?
Two reasons that I did a postbac: one, I wanted to travel around Europe with two of my college friends after graduation for a few months and needed a way to finance it and time to do it before medical school, and two, where I went for undergrad (Clemson University) was a great place but was not affiliated with a medical school. I hadn’t had a great chance to see true translational MD-PhD type careers and labs up close. I wanted that experience to help confirm that I really wanted to pursue that path.
I was in Dr. Gahl’s lab in NHGRI during my postbac year—around the time he was formally launching the Undiagnosed Disease Program. It was an incredible experience, and he was an incredible mentor and really an inspiration in terms of his career and the type of person he is. It solidified for me that I wanted to pursue the Medical Scientist Training Program, and that I wanted to work in genetics long term.
What made you choose the MD-PhD program over the purely clinical or basic science route?
I wanted formal training in research and, in particular, better understanding of human genetics and genetic technologies, which you cannot get from MD training alone without taking a significant amount of time off for research anyway. But my long-term interest was in the very practical application of science, so I felt as though I needed to understand clinical medicine.
After deciding to become a “Doctor-Doctor,” you expanded your repertoire one more time and completed the INNoVATE Certificate Program, a biotechnology entrepreneurship, at The Johns Hopkins University. I think most people would consider an MD-PhD program to be a challenge on its own. What enticed you to pursue additional training in entrepreneurship?
I always had been interested in biotechnology entrepreneurship and had always intended to eventually transition into that area. During my PhD time at the NIH was the first time I really had enough time and experience to begin to explore this, and then when I found out about the INNoVATE program, it seemed like an ideal initial exposure to the field—so I did it. It was a great initial experience to learn the basics. I should say that my NICHD mentor, Dr. Owen Rennert, was very supportive of this, as was my PhD program (the NIH OxCam program), both of whom actually funded it for me after I submitted a small proposal.
Not many people can say they founded a company during their postgraduate studies. What’s the back-story behind Creative Bioinformatics? Do you still play a role in the company in addition to your residency?
During my PhD, most of my work was computational data analysis. I kept thinking that if I could outsource some of the work it could go a thousand times faster, and I could work on many more projects at one time. Dr. Rennert agreed, but we couldn’t find a way to do it. So it seemed like an opportunity.
I basically set up a consulting firm working as a middleman broker for labs to outsource their data analysis to postdoc type people who worked as freelancers for extra income. I was surprised at the response frankly, and I was quickly doing a lot of business, so I brought on another partner. We were looking at how we could scale up away from a consulting model. We went through an incubator (a program for startup businesses to get going quicker, often associated with startup funds. Ours was called TMCx). I was finishing my fourth year of medical school at the time, during which I developed the initial framework for an online marketplace—sort of like Uber—using private investment money to fund the build-out. At that point, I was finishing medical school, and I knew I wanted to go on to residency and it wasn’t going to be feasible to do both. I sold my part of the company to the other partners and am no longer involved. I don’t know all the details, but as far as I am aware, the marketplace never went live, and they are running it as a consulting firm still, but under a different name. It was an incredible experience.
I think we would all love to know how your experiences as a legislative intern, entrepreneur, and physician-scientist have influenced your approach to a medical residency. What have these experiences added to your current position?
In terms of my current position as a physician/resident, I can very easily relate to the wide variety of people I have as patients, because I have a lot of diverse experiences. This is a critical component of patient care that is often overlooked in my opinion. Also it makes even the mundane stuff in the hospital more interesting and fun because I am often thinking about how annoyances could be business opportunities, or what the mechanisms could be behind patients’ problems that we don’t understand.
Can you tell us about the life of an internal medicine resident? What’s your typical day like?
As you advance in years it gets more varied, but most days last year when I was an intern were similar:
- 7 a.m., arrive at the hospital and receive information from the night team about what happened to my patients since I left the evening before
- 7 to 9 a.m., pre-round by seeing my patients, look over their new studies, come up with a plan for the day
- 9 to 11 a.m., round with the team (our attending, other interns, etc.) to discuss each patient and see them again, finalize plans (lots of learning happens on rounds)
- 11 a.m. to ??, do a bunch of random tasks like call consultants, place new orders, check in on patients, go to teaching conferences, respond to issues that come up, write notes, answer nursing questions, etc. (I can usually finish by about 5 p.m. if not admitting new patients, 7 to 8 p.m. if admitting new patients that day)
- Repeat 6 of the 7 days per week
For NICHD fellows who are interested in a diverse career portfolio like yours, what advice can you offer?
Just take advantage of possible opportunities—don’t reflexively say no or assume you won’t have time. Be comfortable with being new to something or being in an uncomfortable situation. Randomly reach out to people if you think something is of potential interest and go meet with them. Take advantage of all the resources NICHD provides and the incredible support that NICHD administers have for the trainees—I was always very happy and impressed with this aspect of NICHD.
If you have questions for Dr. Ziats, please contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.