UW Graduate School

Bish Paul – Ph.D. ’16, Molecular & Cellular Biology

Bish Paul

Courtesy of Bish Paul

“True innovation isn’t siloed,” says Bish Paul. “Take, for example, the smartphone, something many people use every day, and have on them at all times. There isn’t one laboratory or department that developed it. The work of different teams and different areas of study went into creating it.”

For Bish Paul, “innovation isn’t siloed” is a guiding principle, one that has led him to develop cures for life-threatening diseases, communicate complicated science, and influence public policy – all skills and experiences he gained while a doctoral student in Molecular and Cellular Biology, an interdisciplinary PhD program administered by the UW Graduate School and Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center.

From his science and communications background, Bish has carved an impactful career in policy: first as a fellow for the California Council on Science and Technology, and now as Policy Manager 50 States with TechNet, where he advocates for and promotes technology as well as innovation-friendly policies.

Recently, Bish was recognized at the 2018 American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) Conference by the National Organization of Gay and Lesbian Scientists and Technical Professionals with their Educator of the Year award. He was honored as an openly gay scientist who has served as an outstanding educator who has found non-traditional ways of teaching and interweaved advocacy and storytelling in his efforts.

From India, to the Research Labs at the UW

Bish grew up in India and moved to Seattle in 2003 to attend the UW for his undergraduate degree. “It was the first time I left my city, travelled on an airplane, or interacted with anyone who wasn’t my race,” he recalls. The transition was overwhelming, he says.

Ultimately, the UW was a good fit for Bish due to the ample opportunities to work in research as an undergraduate (which he did during all four years of his degree).

As a PhD student, his research employed gene editing, a technique that excises or replaces a disease-causing gene with a “corrected” version of the DNA sequence. He used it to develop a functional cure for HIV in the human cells of the immune system, or t-cells, using nucleases, a type of molecular scissors. By editing out or disrupting the receptor (a trapdoor that a virus uses to enter cells) he made the cells impervious to infection. He presented these findings at eight national conferences.

Bish Paul

Bish Paul in the 2016 Husky 100.

This kind of research calls on systems thinking, a process of figuring out how a system works and developing a more efficient process for the system. This deliberate method of problem-solving is something Bish excels at, and what drove him to the study of molecular biology.

Beyond the Lab Bench

While Bish enjoyed conducting research, he was discouraged by the limitations to advancement he faced in academia based on his immigration status, race, and sexuality. Aiming to increase the diversity at Fred Hutch and the UW, Bish, along with a group of his peers, raised private dollars to create a fellowship targeting communities that are traditionally under-represented in science, including women, people of color, immigrants and individuals who identify as LGBTQ. Though they were ultimately successful in establishing a $300,000 fellowship for training underrepresented scientists, Bish found the group was encumbered by outdated federal and state policies and regulations.

This experience got Bish thinking: if he could have this much of an impact at an institutional level as a graduate student, what kind of impact could he have if he worked in a larger organization, where he held decision-making power? He decided to explore options to use his skills and experiences in systems thinking to solve problems in policy, where he imagined he could have an immediate, real-world impact. As a fellow for the California Council on Science and Technology Policy, he did just that: authoring official policy analysis for 16 pieces of legislation and shepherding five bills through the legislative process, two of which were ultimately signed into law by the Governor of California.

So how did a PhD student in the biomedical hard sciences make the leap to policy? Through opportunities in the interdisciplinary program to build skills in communication and leadership. One of those opportunities was as a science communication fellow at the Pacific Science Center. For Bish, educating at the Science Center was as much about dispelling stereotypes about what a scientist can look like – that yes, a scientist can be gay, or a person of color, or an immigrant – as it was about explaining molecules and the human genome.

While in grad school, Bish took a filmmaking class and used UW’s equipment to start making short documentary films, which he ultimately screened at four national film festivals. In his documentaries, he amplified the experiences of “people whose stories are often ignored, or reduced to stereotypes,” such as people of color, immigrants, LGBTQ people, and women. Making documentary films taught Bish how to tell a story, a skill he says is invaluable in communicating with non-experts about science.

In a formative experience in his policy career, Bish served as a bridge between academia, government and the public as a fellow in the Emerging Leaders in Science & Society program. The science leadership program brought together an interdisciplinary, cross-campus team of graduate students to address the then-emergent Ebola outbreak by assessing community needs and convening several national forums on the challenges of epidemic preparedness. At the end of the one-year program, they visited Washington, DC to present their findings.

To Bish, the program was essential because he “learned and practiced essential project management and meeting facilitation skills, he says. Beyond this, “it showed me that I could have impact.” As scientists, policy-makers and the public “looked at us as non-partisan, and were more likely to work with us than if we were a lobbying or advocacy group,” he says.

Bish says he is excited by his continued work in policy because, as one of the few scientists working in that area, he’s “able to introduce diversity of thought and expertise to the legislature,” he says. Knowing that his expertise will continue to help shape critical legislation, and kill potentially harmful bills, is deeply rewarding, he says.

Published April 2018