From Rivers to Research

Christopher Amos, PhD, NCCC's new Associate Director for Population Sciences, knows his way around the human genome as well as some of America's wildest whitewater.

Soft-spoken Chris Amos admits that taking charge and steering the ship didn't come naturally to him.

Focus article photo

"You deal with incredible situations all the time," says Christopher Amos, PhD, NCCC's new Associate Director for Population Sciences, of his years spent as a whitewater rafting guide. Amos will use his leadership experience to build new collaborative research programs at the Cancer Center.

But all that changed during the two years he spent between undergraduate and graduate school guiding whitewater rafters on the tumultuous rivers of California's Sierra Nevada mountain range as well as on the famously wild Grand Canyon section of the Colorado River. "I got pretty good at shouting to people to avoid the rocks," he confesses – albeit shyly.

An interest in genetics and cancer

Dr. Amos, who grew up in North Carolina, the son of a Duke University research scientist, is Norris Cotton Cancer Center's new Associate Director for Population Sciences. He comes to NCCC after a successful career at MD Anderson Cancer Center at the University of Texas, where he was a professor of bioinformatics and computational biology and of epidemiology. Over the course of his career he has studied genetic causes of prostate, head and neck, lung, and colon cancers, as well as Peutz-Jeghers syndrome, which increases the risk of polyps and multiple cancers.

At NCCC, Chris will focus on creating collaborative research to bring together the best of different disciplines to unravel cancer's mysteries. "Dartmouth has a worldwide reputation for large-scale collaborative studies. I'm looking forward to building on that – right now there aren't a lot of large-scale collaborative cancer studies, but this is definitely the place where we can establish them," he says, adding that collaborations with The Geisel School of Medicine's Pharmacology Department particularly excite him. "There are not many places where you have an exceptional pharmacology department that works so closely with a cancer center like you do here at Dartmouth."

From math to rafting

He graduated from Reed College in Portland, Oregon, with a degree in mathematics, then he rafted the rivers for a couple of years deciding what to do. "Being a guide really helped me grow up," he comments. "You deal with incredible situations all the time, and you're responsible for the safety of a lot of people in what is, fundamentally, a dangerous situation. You learn to think fast and be constantly aware of what's going on all around you."

After hanging up his oars, he earned his PhD in biometry at Louisiana State University (LSU), where he studied under the mentorship of Dr. Robert Elston, one of the great teachers and researchers in the field of statistical genetics.  "I was always interested in the integration of genetics and mathematics, and I was lucky to be able to excel at a time when there was, and still is, a lot of exciting work in the field," he says. Chris followed LSU with five years at the National Institutes of Health before going to MD Anderson.

Data: the key to developing better cancer drugs

He got to know Dartmouth largely through his son Ryan, who is an undergraduate ('16) at the College. Ryan works in the laboratory of Jason Moore, professor of genetics and a member of the Cancer Center's Epidemiology and Chemoprevention Research Program. Through Dr. Moore, Chris learned of the strong collaborative research emphasis fostered by the Cancer Center's leadership.

Genomics is still a primary interest for him, and in addition to his duties at NCCC he will direct the Center for Genomic Medicine at the Geisel School. He looks forward to bringing his research experience and collaborative approach to bear on cancer. "The cost and time of genetic sequencing is dropping precipitously," he points out. "Now the huge challenge is trying to figure out what all the data mean." He sees this data as the key, however, to research that will help develop drugs that will, as he describes, "be more effective at fighting cancer with a smaller dose. And how do we get those drugs into the pipeline faster? That's another critical question."

"If we can identify the changes driving cancer," he concludes, "we can develop drugs to target those changes."

September 17, 2012