What is the current focus of your research, and what do you find most rewarding about your work?
I am fascinated by the amazing phenomenon of self-organization. Both inside an organism and in a petri dish, cells can spontaneously form diverse multicellular structures that have characteristic patterns, shapes, and physiological outputs. Self-organization crucially relies on cell communication that is choreographed in space and time. Broadly speaking, my lab is interested in understanding how genetic circuits coordinate cell communication to enable self-organization. We are hoping to uncover common features of circuit design across different tissues and organs, and use the knowledge to genetically program self-organization. For example, one area we are currently focusing on is the assembly of diverse stromal tissues, which are crucial for the development and physiology of most organs.
The most rewarding aspect of my work is the opportunity to interact with brilliant scientists from diverse fields. This includes collaboration with synthetic biologists, developmental biologists, mechanical engineers, and applied mathematicians. As a result, it is extremely rewarding to witness the trainees in my lab becoming “multilingual” scientists and coming up with unconventional solutions to tough problems.
How would you explain the significance of this work to a lay audience?
Cells interact with one another to form organs, just like different organisms co-existing in an ecosystem. To maintain the structure and function of organs, different cells need to constantly talk to one another. Understanding the “grammar” cells use to communicate could allow us to program the relationship among different cells, an important goal in tissue engineering.
What led you to become a scientist and to stem cell research?
A series of lucky coincidences. Although I knew I liked science from a young age, I had very little exposure to research before college. During Sophomore year at Peking University, I was lucky to get a scholarship for a paid summer research position in a lab. That experience completely changed my career trajectory. I stayed in the same lab for the rest of my college years and applied to graduate schools in the US. I got lucky again to get into the Chemical Biology PhD program at Harvard, a place with endless options of research topics. I was interested in labs that developed or applied chemical tools to understand biological systems, and accidentally stumbled upon the research in Len Zon’s lab. I was immediately captivated by the rich phenotypes produced by chemical perturbations in zebrafish. On top of interesting science, Len’s lab provides a wonderful training environment. I joined the lab and started my journey into stem cell research, without knowing anything about Len’s role in founding the ISSCR at that point! I guess I was a very naïve first-year graduate student.
What is the most exciting aspect of your work?
The most exciting aspect of our work is the capability of reducing complex multicellular interactions into relatively simple genetic circuits, which then can be computationally modeled and experimentally reconstituted in a petri dish. Such a reductionist approach allows us to take complex systems apart and build them from the ground up. Through this type of exercise, we can test the sufficiency of our understanding, discover new design principles, and explore what is possible in the biological space and in evolution.
What guidance would you share in talking with trainees interested in pursuing your area of research?
Staying open-minded to different ways of solving scientific problems. Asking yourself what it means to understand a biological process. Signing up to have lunch/dinner with speakers regardless of their fields. You never know where the conversation might take you to. And who does not enjoy (good) free food?
Do you have any mentors or individuals who have inspired you in your stem cell work?
My PhD advisor, Len Zon, showed me how fascinating stem cells are. My desire to study tissue development from the perspective of genetic circuits is inspired by my postdoc advisor, Michael Elowitz, and the work by James Briscoe, Naama Barkai, and Eric Davidson, among others. The reconstitution approach is truly inspired by the pioneers in the field of developmental biology, who took cells outside developing embryos to tease apart the complexity and perform well-controlled perturbations.
How do you spend your free time?
I usually plan a big trip each year, to explore a new place with amazing landscape and wildlife. I often feel recharged after those trips. With COVID-19 related restrictions, I have been exploring the local sceneries and food in New England.
What is something your peers would be surprised to learn about you?
I got interested in bird-watching when I got stuck on a remote island in Alaska a few years ago.
What do you most value about your membership with the ISSCR?
The community of creative people.