Article by Dai Leran, published on May 20, 2022.
Translated by Jin Linkai.
SHANGHAI-Scholar Of Tomorrow conducted an interview with Dr Xu Liya, a specialist in Biophysics and Neuroscience.
Dr Xu graduated from the University of Science and Technology of China and studied Biophysics and Neuroscience in-depth at the University of Southern California. She is currently an assistant professor at the Keck School of Medicine of the University of Southern California.
Students who are interested in Biophysics and Neuroscience may find this article helpful in understanding this field of research and preparing for related learnings. We may also gain precious takeaways from the past journey and experience of Dr Xu herself.
Q1: What subject of interest are you currently researching on?
A1: We are currently working on a very uncommon kind of cancer that may develop in children: Retinoblastoma. Right now, we are trying to figure out a way to do molecular diagnoses on it. Retinoblastoma is a rare disease, but it is quite well-known for its severe symptoms and consequences. If the young patients are not treated correctly in time, they would lose their sight and possibly their lives. That is why it is really important to have the means to do accurate genetic diagnoses.
Q2: How did you end up researching in this current field?
A2: From the perspective of, let’s say, high school students, it may seem that there were a lot of turnings and crossings in my research journeys, but in fact, there has always been a main narrative to it. For instance, Biophysics is a method of scientific research; Chemical Biophysics is a developed technology; Neuroscience is a field of discovery. My previous interest was the application of Biophysics in Neuroscience. From such a perspective, there may not be much of a disparity.
Personally, I really started out with neuroscience. I am very interested in organized things and really enjoy it when everything is in order. When I was in college, I once encountered a diagram of retina structure, and that was the first time I felt that the living body was a very orderly thing. If you search for a hierarchical diagram of the retina, you will find that it is constructed layer by layer, clean and clear, and all functions are distributed neat and tidy. That was the first time I became interested in the retina, and my entire research started with studying it in a biophysical way. In fact, studies on the retina have been at the forefront of Neuroscience. It is a signal-receiving system of the entire central nervous system. Now, I am translating my previous studies in neuroscience, retina and signalling into developments in disease diagnosis for retinoblastoma.
Why am I in this field? It’s because I like it. You can’t possibly stay here for 20 years if you don’t enjoy it.
Started by falling in love at the first sight with a retinal structure diagram, I then continued to study it through the conversion of different technical means. The more in-depth I researched, the more interesting and fun it was. Through numerous attempts and conclusions, I tried to answer my own questions. From a very selfish point of view, scientific research is very self-entertaining. Of course, from a translational medicine perspective, the return is extremely high. At the end of the day, it is about curing diseases and saving people. We report to patients and their family members, and we need to be responsible for that. That’s why we can say, in this process, we can enjoy intellectual challenges and cure diseases at the same time. Seeing that patients are getting better results because of our research development, I wonder what can be more enjoyable in the world.
Q3: What’s your view on the future of this field?
A3: Generally speaking, fields of scientific research, whether in biophysics or chemistry, have always been very lively. People here are usually very childlike and enjoy their work, and hence they have unlimited vitality.
People said that the 21st century was going to be an era of life sciences. In fact, after entering this field, we didn’t really care about these speculations. That’s the case in almost every field. You find that the world is very vast and there are more than enough things to try out. No matter whether it is electronic communication, electronic engineering, computer engineering, or any other major, the potential for exploration is vast. Looking specifically at Biology, I would of course say that it is a golden age now because technologies are emerging and flourishing. As researchers, we are getting so many new tools to address questions that we previously had no way to answer. And if we look further into the future and ask those philosophical questions: where do we come from? Why are we here? Where are we going in the future? I would say there could be a way to answer them, with Biology paving our paths.
Q4: What would be important about researching in your current field of interest? (Especially for students who wish to enter the same or a related field.)
A4: While we mainly accept graduate students and doctoral students, our laboratory does train high school students. Interested individuals can come to participate in the seminars and data collection sessions conducted by various departments. But the one really important thing to note may be regulatory management, such as biosafety training.
Biology is not really like mathematics or computing where computers can solve a large part of the problem. If you are doing physical experiments instead of optical data analysis, you need to deal with chemical reagents in labs, and then biosafety would be very important. We are only permitted to conduct experiments after a very rigorous biosafety training.
Personally, I think there is no rush for high school students to focus on a specific topic. It is always the first and foremost to cultivate and conserve interest, especially in a very long scientific career. It may not always be desirable, to limit ourselves to one subject, or to focus entirely on one specific subject so early in our lives. Of course, by doing so, we can quickly accumulate technical advantages and publish pieces of literature in the short term; however, in the long run, interest still plays a decisive role. To be able to retain your interests, to try out different things and understand what you really like, and to find something that inspires you in that field, is truly important.
Q5: Have you ever thought about giving up in the middle of a research project?
A5: I think all walks of life have their ups and downs, and anyone at my age must have experienced ups and downs, light or heavy. It doesn’t only happen to our professions, but also to all aspects of life.
For some reason, many can’t help but associate scientific research with hardships as if they happen with rare exceptions. But I don’t think that scientific research necessarily means enduring loneliness. Scientific research to me is like reading a detective novel; like missing a watch and trying to find it; like putting together a 10,000-piece puzzle. Do you think that putting together a 10,000-piece puzzle is something that needs to endure loneliness? Of course, there will be many people who think: why do you want to put together a 10,000-piece puzzle? What if it's over? But people who really like puzzles will not think in that way. but They just know they will finish it. So, whether you can endure loneliness should not be a problem. The problem is how to balance your desires, such as the desire for money, the desire for status, and the desire to pursue your true interests and hobbies. Scientific research is an intellectual challenge, the challenge of controlling our own desires. So, it’s not as much about pursuing your interest when there is enough money, as it is about establishing economic stability when there can be a financial shortage. Otherwise, you can’t do scientific research on an empty stomach. This is why we provide our students with financial support, not to hire them with money, but to hope that they will not have any worries about survival and can fully utilise their energy and intelligence to go after the questions they want to answer.
So, of course, there will be troughs. Sometimes you simply can’t get through in a project, but more often it’s the case that someone else reached the answer just one month earlier than you, maybe for some topics that you have been pursuing for ten years. Because there are many other people in this world who have the same interests as you, and they are older than you. You may come to doubt the meaningfulness of those ten years. It is honestly shocking. But it also depends on whether our life is purpose-oriented or experience-oriented. Many researchers can really immerse themselves in the joy of their professions because they don’t value the outcomes as much as the experience of challenging and surpassing themselves in the process.
The ups and downs, the highs and lows, in the entire ten-year process, are all important self-cultivations.
Q6: What are some challenges or memorial things in your research journeys?
A6: My research journey was quite smooth in general, which, I guess, can be related to my personality. I have always felt that people should not pursue things too hard. We must balance our life first, because it is impossible to devote 100% of our time to work, and it is also impossible to spend 100% of our time doing nothing. People can only enjoy their lives and hobbies and the process of challenges, after balancing their life and family. This has always been my philosophy of life. Therefore, my academic progress was not so fast. Many of my old classmates became professors or deans five or ten years ahead of me. But looking back, I didn't encounter many difficulties, because I have always had good resources and teachers, and I was on the right path. So, although I walked slowly, I have never gone astray.
I am very grateful for all the good teachers I have met. In fact, having the right mentor is very important in scientific research. They play a very significant role in helping you to succeed in your graduate studies and project research because good tutors can hold the gate very well, give you support and guide your future research path.
Q7: Do you have any really unforgettable experiences?
A7: I am quite moved, for that, I have always encountered really nice mentors and seniors. I learnt a lot of things from them, including knowledge of both research and life in general.
There are two really unforgettable events.
When I first started doing experiments, I didn't realize that scientific research was something that required training. I liked it simply because I liked detective novels, which are suspenseful, intriguing, and challenging. So, I went to the University of Science and Technology of China, to study scientific research and biology. But in fact, I had never been ready. Scientific research is based on technology, so you must make sure that the experimental technology corresponds to the researched problem to the most perfect and extreme. Before entering the lab, I was interested and curious, but not ready for the boring bench life. When the first senior who took me to do the experiment locked me in a small dark room for three months, I realized for the first time that experimenting is just like practising kung fu. A set of boxing techniques must be thoroughly understood, and then you hit the right positions with the right moves. Only when you reach this point can you complete a whole set of experiments beautifully. The innovation and development of scientific research is always a small step in the field in which you are very proficient. That small step is where others can't compare, and it is your own innovation, but before that, it is all boring trainings. After that, I had a more systematic understanding of the entire scientific research.
The second time was when I met my mentor as a postdoctoral fellow. At that time, although I was already a relatively competent scientific researcher, I did not think of myself as a scientist. In my first postdoctoral advisor group, my mentor mentioned “academic taste” several times, which I had never heard before. What is academic taste? Does scientific research also have tastes? Before that, in research, I only considered how to construct a hypothesis, come up with sound logic, find suitable ways to answer the question, and confirm or falsify the hypothesis. Since then, I realized that scientists must find their own interests, and then extract topics with good taste. So, I think that training is very important to me. Only after I have good academic taste can I do my own research.
Q8: In terms of research in the field of Biophysics and Neuroscience, what are some differences between China and the US?
A8: I have actually heard a lot of people discussing this question, but I feel I might not give you a very detailed answer because I did not experience much difference really.
Biology is different from other fields. When this field was developed, the university system between China and the West was not much different. Everyone started to use similar systems and teaching methods for education. In biology majors, many tutors have overseas experience, and my experimental tutor studied at Harvard. Later, I went to the United States for graduate and doctoral studies, and then returned to China to do a postdoctoral fellowship at Peking University. At that time, the postdoctoral supervisor was also from Harvard. Therefore, it is not easy to find a mentor who has no background in studying abroad in the biological field. The tutors themselves have studied abroad, and they will combine the advanced experience of the United States with the advanced environment of China. That’s why the methods and systems of China and the United States, at least for Biology majors, are not so different.
In terms of the freedom of scientific research, it is not actually about the difference between countries or academic systems, but the difference in mentorship. More precisely, it is the difference in resources. Each student's funding source is different, and we must be responsible to maintain a fair level of resourcefulness. From this perspective, we need to be responsible for funding.
Personally, the only thing is about the evaluation system. Graduate students and doctoral students in China need to publish articles with impact factors before they can get a degree, and that is not strictly stipulated in US universities. US colleges and universities normally have tutors, judges, and academic jury panels to review whether the research of graduate students has reached a level that can be graduated and offered a degree, and it is not necessary to publish an article to graduate. Other than that, I don't think there's any particularly big difference.
Q9: Could you please introduce to us the University of Southern California (USC)? What do you want to say to students who are interested in USC?
A9: My advice is: yes, do consider us as an option.
I really like USC, and it’s the only school I applied for. I really love playing and relaxing, so I didn’t consider going to the east where there wasn’t much sunshine and sand. And that’s also why I came to the west coast. Maybe I am not really a good example (because I’m too playful), but USC is really an excellent university.
Besides its nice location and the comfortable weather, USC has resources to support education.
USC usually gives full scholarships to students who are pursuing doctoral studies. Many other universities are not so generous, and that can make things hard for students.
As an undergraduate, I made many good friends at USC. And that’s the strength of many California universities - they're very international. California itself is the most international of all states in the US. People from all over the world gather here. So students make friends from various social backgrounds, and that’s undoubtedly a very good resource for those who love to make social connections. From the perspective of educational resources, as a private school, USC has a very comprehensive set of departments, and the classes in each department are relatively small, which means significant attention and progress-checking from the tutors. The difference between the cost of public schools and private schools is reflected in the ratio of teachers and students. The quality of education is definitely different, between one teacher for ten students and one teacher for a hundred students. At USC, you choose a small class you are interested in, and you will be able to establish direct contact with that tutor and receive comprehensive guidance. USC also has some ace majors such as film majors, media majors, and especially sports and medicine: there are various sports facilities and sports channels, different affiliated hospitals, children's hospitals and departments. I myself work at the children's hospital at USC. If you are very interested in a certain professional direction, you can definitely find people and mentors who are willing to cooperate at USC, as well as sufficient resources.
People may also worry about the hatred of Chinese abroad: will children be bullied? In California, not that prevalent. Due to the high level of internationalization, there is a strong awareness of equality. And there are a lot of Chinese at USC in various majors and grades. Maybe some of you don’t feel like going somewhere with a lot of Chinese. You are coming to the US, after all. But in fact, you will miss your hometown cuisines, you will want to have delicious Chinese food once a week, and you will wonder if you can find a classmate who can speak Shanghainese or Hokkien as well. And you can definitely find these at USC, not necessarily in other schools. USC even has Chinese restaurants where you can get xiao long bao or Hong Kong-styled desserts. So, I personally highly recommend USC because it is really very lifelike.
The cultural barriers and dietary barriers here at USC or UCLA for Chinese students are really minimal. There isn’t a second school in this country that can ease your nostalgia like USC.
This would conclude the interview with Dr Xu Liya, and we really appreciate Dr Xu for her insights, ideas, and advice as a research insider to high school students.
If you still have doubts about the interview, please try to contact us at Scholar Of Tomorrow by visiting our official website, or by leaving a private message on our WeChat official channel. We will try our best to answer your inquiries!