Graduate student spotlight: Exploring the origins of epigenetic marks in cancer

Throughout the year, we highlight Van Andel Institute Graduate School’s doctoral students. This month, we’re featuring Nathan Spix, an M.D./Ph.D. student in the lab of Dr. Peter Laird. As a physician-scientist in training, Nathan studies the molecular switches that contribute to colon cancer. 

How would you describe your area of study to someone without a scientific background?

Nathan Spix

Nathan Spix: My work focuses on understanding how colon cancer develops. Historically, most cancer research has focused on understanding how DNA mutations disrupt our bodies’ normal functions. While these mutations certainly play an important role in cancer, our lab has found evidence that other epigenetic changes are fundamentally important in cancer development. These alterations can turn important genes “on” and “off” and may set the stage for the earliest phases of cancer development. For my thesis, I’m studying how these epigenetic marks are distributed in both normal human colon tissue and in colorectal tumors. Understanding how these marks are distributed will help us to understand how and when they arise during the process of cancer formation, providing important insights into the very earliest stages of cancer development.

What is your primary motivation for persevering through graduate school?

Nathan Spix: The thrill of understanding a little bit more about the human body (and living things in general) is a really strong motivator. It’s really incredible to see the puzzle pieces fit together to reveal the bigger picture!

What do you want to do with your degree?

Nathan Spix: Ultimately, I would like to split my time between research and clinical practice, running a cancer research laboratory three to four days a week and directly caring for cancer patients one to two days a week.

Did you take time off before starting your Ph.D. degree or come directly from an undergraduate or master’s degree program?

Nathan Spix: Before starting my Ph.D. training at VAI, I completed two years of medical training at Michigan State University as part of an integrated M.D./Ph.D. training program. I plan to complete my medical training after finishing my Ph.D.

How has your previous coursework contributed to your breadth of knowledge?

Nathan Spix: Finishing two years of medical school courses gave me a strong background in human physiology and disease. I also really value the perspective that it gave me on the relationship between basic science and clinical practice.

Did your past experiences in life or education help prepare you for graduate school, or did you have to develop different strategies to succeed?

Nathan Spix: I loved undergrad because it was very structured and ordered. In grad school, there’s very little external structure imposed on you. Learning to survive and thrive in that environment has definitely been a challenge, but it’s teaching me important skills that I will need in the future!

What is your favorite stress-reduction technique?

Nathan Spix: I enjoy playing violin (I’ve studied violin since I was 4) — it can really help me to relax and refocus. I also love finding remote places to hike and enjoy nature.

Why did you choose Van Andel Institute Graduate School?

Nathan Spix: There were several things that attracted me to the program. I liked the smaller size of the Institute, which gave it a more personal feel, and was really impressed by the strength of the research program. Plus, it’s an amazing place to work, both because of the beautiful facilities and the great research support.

Has your perception of this Ph.D. program changed since you began the program?

Nathan Spix: I’ve definitely grown to appreciate the culture and resources at VAI even more. I am very blessed by the opportunity to work with so many talented and dedicated people.

If you hadn’t been admitted to graduate school, what do you think you would be doing right now?

Nathan Spix: Starting my first year of medical residency training, probably in internal medicine or pediatrics. I’d probably be dying for a chance to get involved in research.

Interested in Van Andel Institute Graduate School? Learn more at and read previous student spotlights here. Read more about the M.D./Ph.D. program here.