What is the current focus of your research, and what do you find most rewarding about your work?
My lab is currently interested in cell identity conversion, namely transdifferentiation and dedifferentiation. Cell identity conversion provides us a new paradigm to generate functional cells independent of stem cells in vitro and in vivo. We are trying to understand the molecular regulation and principles underlying cell identity conversion and, in parallel, their roles in tissue regeneration. We use the liver as our study system, which possesses remarkable regeneration capability.
I will be excited about anything new we find in the lab and the new progress in the field. In addition, I find it rewarding when our findings are used by other labs or further developed for clinic applications.
What led you to become a scientist and to stem cell research?
I was curious about nature when I was a kid. I always dreamed of being a physicist until I took a biology class in high school. I studied cancer biology during my PhD and postdoc trainings. When I started my own lab, I wanted to work on something different. My postdoc mentor, Erwin Wagner at that time in IMP, Vienna, also kept a small team on embryonic stem cells, and I have been fascinated by stemness since then. Later, the seminal finding of iPSCs showed me the door from which I entered the field of cell identity conversion.
What is the most exciting aspect of your work?
I am excited by the new findings in the lab, for example, the first documentation of hepatocyte-like cells generated from fibroblasts and the first large expansion of human primary hepatocytes via partial dedifferentiation. I was also excited when our cells were applied in a bio-artificial liver device and were used for liver failure patients in an investigator-initiated study. The first time they were delivered to a patient I was sleepless that night.
What guidance would you share in talking with trainees interested in pursuing your area of research?
Experimental study is time consuming and, at some points, can be quite frustrating. I would suggest keeping enthusiasm in science. I think it is key to understand the significance and impact that their projects could bring to the field. And it is important to figure out whether the question is answerable by state-of-the-art techniques.
Do you have any mentors or individuals who have inspired you in your stem cell work?
Many. When I was a junior faculty member, my institute invited two mentors for me, Zhenggang Liu at the NIH and Jiahuai Han at Xiamen University. They both provided invaluable strategic advice for me to find my own research direction. My friend and former colleague Xin Wang guided me into the field of liver regeneration. Naihe Jing at my institute helped me build a framework around stem cell biology by organizing regular internal seminars. Qi Zhou at the Institute of Zoology, CAS encouraged me to apply our findings to translation.
How do you spend your free time?
I like to spend time with my family and my two sons, they grow too fast. I also spend time reading and doing some light sports.
What is something your peers would be surprised to learn about you?
We are the champion team of the 2018 dragon-boat race (35 teams in total!) held by the Shanghai Science and Technology Commission, and I am the captain on board.
What do you most value about your membership with the ISSCR?
I think the ISSCR provides me the largest platform to show our findings and it’s an international community where people share each other’s progress. I also hope I might have a chance to serve the community and the ISSCR someday.