Fall 2019 > IAS Scholars
IAS Junior Fellow and Research Assistant Professor of Life Science
Making a life in science is never easy, particularly for female scientists. Dr. FENG Zhe, the latest Junior Fellow to join the IAS, has no doubt beaten very long odds to get where she is today.
At 16, Feng, a native Chinese who at the time barely spoke any English, left her hometown of Ningbo to continue her secondary education in the UK. The pressure of the language barrier became an anchor that kept Feng focused and tenacious, and her hard work quickly paid off. After receiving her Bachelor’s degree in Biochemistry from Imperial College London, Feng pursued graduate studies at the University of Oxford and gradually became a researcher, beginning a lifelong journey of scientific discovery.
Tell us about your life in the UK. How was it at the beginning?
After I finished middle school in Ningbo, I attended an English preparatory course in Beijing before going to the UK. When I arrived at the boarding school in Brighton, in the south of England, my impression was that this was a place full of history, completely different from the city life of Ningbo.
At school, all of the science subjects were of course taught in English, and the first term was quite tough because the terminology was foreign to me. I still remember that the only English word that I could understand in the first biology class was “water”! But ultimately, I survived! I really enjoyed my biology classes, which gave me the first taste of how nature works.
What made you decide to choose life science?
The human body is pretty amazing, don’t you think? I wanted to know more about how it works.
I think a life-changing point was my first internship at the Vienna BioCenter in Austria, where I fell in love with life science and laboratory research work. The internship was supported by the Bio-Rad Summer School Prize, and the professors there were incredibly encouraging and supportive. They introduced me to laboratory work and taught me how to think scientifically. The experience also made me realize that what I had learned in my undergraduate courses was very elementary. That is when I said to myself, “I want to pursue research to work on cutting-edge science.”
Brain research is definitely not a “no-brainer.” Why are you interested in it?
Why the brain? Because it is one of the largest and most important organs. It is in charge of almost everything in our body from sensation to autonomic and cognitive activities. I have always been fascinated by the unsolved scientific mysteries of the brain. Last year, I gave birth to my son, and seeing him grow and acquire new skills every day reminds me of the miracles that can be achieved by a human brain.
Can you share your experiences in the Raff Lab at the University of Oxford?
During my graduate studies, I joined Prof. Jordan RAFF’s lab in the Sir William Dunn School of Pathology at the University of Oxford to investigate the structural biology of Drosophila centrosomin (Cnn) protein and its role in centrosome assembly and maturation. Individual centrioles organize a cloud of electron-dense material, i.e., protein, outside the centrosome. This mass of protein surrounding the two centrioles is called pericentriolar material (PCM). At that time, I was interested in one particular protein that is crucial in the building of that “cloud of material.” My goal was to resolve that part of the protein and find out how it builds the PCM. I hope that my research can one day contribute to helping patients who suffer from neurological diseases such as brain disorders, depression, Alzheimer’s, schizophrenia, autism, and so on.
What does it take to be a scientist?
I would say that it is definitely curiosity and perseverance. Sitting in a lab and doing experiments the whole day can be tiring, especially as many times, your experiments might not work out as expected. Perhaps this is the life of a researcher: 99% of the time you are mired in the same old, same old, and then suddenly a fleeting moment happens when you make a small achievement that keeps you going. You know that you are working toward an understanding of questions that have long held interest, although the path might not be smooth.
What is your view of basic research?
I have been asked this by so many people who don’t have a scientific background, including my parents. Basic research may not make an immediate contribution, but it is certainly important for life scientists like me to understand the mechanisms of our body and the linkages between different diseases.
Can you tell us about your current research at HKUST?
I was privileged to join Prof. ZHANG Mingjie’s lab as a Postdoctoral Fellow in 2017. What I am trying to do is to combine my experience in centrosomal biology with synaptic biology research in the hope of finding out how synaptic structural changes are materialized upon receiving stimulation. Our brains contain billions of neurons that communicate through synapses, which are communication hubs that allow neurons to connect to each other and build neural circuits to perform specific brain functions. I am investigating how synapses are built and how their formation is regulated. I am grateful to be part of Prof. Zhang’s research team.