Lauren Ritterhouse Casariego, M.D., Ph.D., is an assistant professor at Harvard Medical School and an associate director of the Center for Integrated Diagnostics at Massachusetts General Hospital. She is a leader in diagnostic molecular genetic pathology with expertise in biomarkers for personalized medicine in cancer.
“Even when I was really young, growing up I was fascinated by infectious disease,” Ritterhouse said. “I wanted to be a virus hunter at the CDC. I thought that was super cool when I was younger.”
As a student at Edmond Memorial High School, she took all of the available advanced placement science-based courses.
“Of 20 to 30 kids, I was the only female in my AP physics class,” she said. “I think my mom was concerned about me being the only girl in the class… (The teacher, Steve Mathis) said to her at the time ‘if Lauren can’t do this, I don’t have any students who can do it.’”
“I think having really supportive people in your life like that, especially if you’re female or…there might be different demographic influences that make you an outlier in STEM fields, I think all you need is one or two people to put that support behind you,” she added. “It was definitely nice to have that external support to agree with what I thought was a good idea.”
During her senior year of high school, Ritterhouse applied for a summer research program at the Oklahoma Medical Research Foundation where she was paired with John Harley, M.D., Ph.D.
“It was a really amazing opportunity,” she said. “(Harley) did lupus genetics, so that was my first foray into molecular biology and genetics. … I loved every second of it. It was the most fun summer I’d had. I remember I missed my senior trip and I didn’t even care; I had so much fun in the research laboratory.”
“What was neat about working with him was that he was a physician scientist, so I got to go to clinic with him, see lupus patients, meet them, interact with and understand what it’s like to manage a chronic disease and some of the struggles that happen day-to-day clinically with a lack of diagnostic tests or good medication options, to really see some of the areas that patient care could be improved, and at the same time go back and work in the research laboratory to try to address these shortcomings we had at the time in clinical medicine, and I just loved it,” she added. “I thought it was the most amazing possible career path.”
Following that experience, Ritterhouse received a National Merit Scholarship and enrolled at the University of Oklahoma to pursue biomedical sciences; here, she joined Department of Biology professor and department chair Richard Broughton’s lab.
“We did phylogenetic studies of Cyprinella, which is a species of these little fish which you see in the area, and it really taught me something I learned much later in my career,” Ritterhouse said. “I used to be very focused on the specific project I was working on in training…but what I eventually learned is that good science training is about learning how to think critically and ask the right questions, how to design experiments and have a critical eye, and that’s what you really need to cultivate in science training. In my opinion, it matters less what exactly you’re working on as long as you’re training; you can take those skill sets and apply them to a lot of different things.”
“I learned the basics of molecular biology in Rich’s lab,” she added. “I learned…the fundamentals of molecular biology that I use still every single day in my clinical diagnostic laboratory. These very basic, fundamental skills, applied totally differently, like critical troubleshooting. I think I spent an entire summer trying to get a certain PCR amplification to work in his lab, just tinkering and tweaking things until we finally got it to work. It’s funny that working on fish in a summer undergrad project taught me a lot of the fundamentals that I use every day in my clinical practice.”
Following the completion of her undergraduate degree, she applied for the M.D., Ph.D. program at the OU Health Sciences Center.
“You go through several different research lab rotations, but I ended up back in the same research group that I worked in as a high school student, so in grad school I worked on lupus and lupus genetics and some other clinical immunology projects,” she said.
She said a major factor in her decision to return to the lab of her high school summer experience was the team.
“Finding a good mentor and learning the scientific method and asking good questions and that can be translatable to whatever you want to do…You don’t have to find a research lab or mentor who works on a particular virus; that doesn’t mean you can’t go on to do exactly what you’re interested in because it’s about gaining this broader skillset.”
She decided to join the lab of Judith James for her doctoral work. James, herself a former a mentee of Harley, is an expert on systemic lupus erythematosus and is the current vice president of clinical affairs at the Oklahoma Medical Research Foundation.
“I picked a group that I thought was awesome and that I’d worked with before and I’d learned a lot…I think autoimmune disease is fascinating from a genetic standpoint since it’s so heterogeneous and there are so many environmental and genetic factors that go into it, so it’s very complex, which is something I found really challenging and interesting,” Ritterhouse said.
She adds that students shouldn’t feel intimidated in seeking a mentor to guide and support them through their academic career.
Ritterhouse said, “Even if someone is very important sounding or prestigious and you think they wouldn’t have time for a high school student or a college student, I was always amazed when I would email someone as a freshman, like Bruce Roe, who is famous – he had done the Human Genome Project – and I was just ‘I think what you do is cool. Can I come work in your lab?’ and you’d just be amazed at how many people are excited to work with and mentor young, eager students, so don’t ever feel intimidated about reaching out to potential mentors.”
Dr. Ritterhouse joined the Massachusetts General Hospital Department of Pathology and Center for Integrated Diagnostics as a staff pathologist in 2019. Prior to this, she was the co-director of the clinical genomics and molecular diagnostic laboratories at the University of Chicago. She received her bachelor’s degree in biology from the University of Oklahoma in Norman and a doctor of medicine and doctoral degree from the University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center, where she studied the pathogenic roles of aberrant cytokine production in autoimmunity. She completed a Molecular Genetic Pathology Fellowship at Harvard Medical School and Anatomic Pathology Residency at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston. She is particularly interested in the translation of emerging molecular biomarkers into the clinical laboratory, including those evaluating response to immunotherapy, solid tumor mutational signature profiling and circulating tumor DNA, as well as hematologic malignancies.