Julie Saiki’s PhD switch from musicology to chemical and systems biology

Julie Saiki
Julie Saiki switched from a PhD program in musicology to one in chemical and systems biology after she was diagnosed with ulcerative colitis. Photo: Norbert von der Groeben

JULIE SAIKI tried several violins from the Stanford Department of Music’s collection until she found one whose sound was just right. But she kept herself from getting too attached. It was on loan — hers for as long as she was enrolled in lessons or performing with her chamber group at Stanford. She assumed returning the instrument would happen after she had earned a PhD in musicology. Instead, it happened because she switched degree programs.

Saiki will always be a musician, but now she is working toward a PhD in Stanford’s Chemical and Systems Biology Program.

Saiki’s plans for a doctorate in musicology were knocked off course after she was diagnosed with ulcerative colitis, a disabling inflammation of the colon. It wasn’t the disease but the cure that sent her in a new academic direction. An herbal remedy put her symptoms into remission, and she went looking for a way to make it available to others. Despite having no science background, she enrolled in a course on drug development; successfully pitched her idea to SPARK, Stanford’s drug development training program; and received approval from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to begin a clinical trial. Each step brought her cure closer to patients, but the experience, and her success, caused her to re-evaluate her career.

Read more about her through Kim Smuga-Otto’s story on the Stanford Medicine website.