Growing up in Utah in a small rural town of 9,000, Lance Pflieger spent a great deal of time outdoors. As a lover of science, he had a passion for learning about evolution and looking at the stars. He imagined he might become an astronomer or an astronaut or more practically, perhaps a high school teacher.
Lance decided to attend Utah State University where he studied biology and took pre-med courses, to preserve the option to go into medicine. As an undergrad, Lance was part of a research program where he got to spend time in a lab, which transformed him. He decided he didn’t want to be a clinician and preferred becoming a scientist.
During a subsequent stint working as a lab tech, Lance was exposed to bioinformatics, which sat at the intersection of two passions: biology and computer science. This field spoke to him and he concluded, “That’s where I want to be.” He proceeds to look into graduate programs and decided to pursue a PhD in biomedical informatics at the University of Utah.
Lance discovered that the biomedical informatics program at the University of Utah was one of the oldest and best programs in the country. Some of the founders of the industry came from Utah and the University of Utah has resources—including the Utah population database—along with multiple industry collaborators.
Immediately upon starting the PhD program, Lance said, “This whole world opened up to me.” He learned about medical informatics, public health informatics, and more. He said he felt like a kid in a candy store, overwhelmed by the challenge of where to focus. He was able to do work in cancer research, in neurology research, and in predictive modeling related to pharmacology. He found the breadth of his experience as astounding. Ultimately, he focused his research on uncertainty quantification and reproducibility in next-generation sequencing.
While the numerous possibilities in his PhD program made it difficult to narrow his focus, Lance faced a similar challenge related to deciding what to do upon completing his PhD. He wasn’t sure if he wanted to work in industry or pursue an academic career. He ultimately decided that his next step would be working in cancer research at City of Hope Comprehensive Cancer Institute outside of Los Angeles.
He was excited to live in a new place and to work on exciting, challenging research related to breast cancer and ovarian cancer. The problem he is working on is a translational problem. His computational work could be put into a clinical trial within a few years.
In addition to the complexity of the work, what Lance finds most rewarding is the impact this work will have on patients, and the caliber of people he gets to work with each day, including clinicians, PIs, and other scientists.
“What’s most rewarding is that I can transform patients’ lives. That’s what brought me into this field. . . it’s nice to actually know that you’re impacting patient care. . . . What I like to know is this is going to help somebody, maybe not tomorrow, but down the road. What I’m doing will be impactful.”
At some point down the road, after writing a few high-impact papers, the project at City of Hope will eventually wrap up. When that occurs, Lance is hoping to spend a bit of time in industry before settling down in academia. He sees the robust demand for bioinformaticians and the numerous opportunities available as one of the most exciting parts of the field.
“One of the nice things about biomedical informatics is you’re not nailed down. You can jump to industry, you can jump to academia. You can maybe even find a place that bridges both. . . . I won’t have any problem finding a job. That’s the great thing about biomedical informatics; it’s a very desired career.”
In reflecting on his journey, Lance is astounded at how far he’s come. From his small town in Utah to working on groundbreaking research at a world-renowned cancer center is not where he expected to be.
Looking forward, based on his education and experience, and the development of the entire biomedical informatics industry, Lance is uncertain about the future but excited about the possibilities.