By Jiang He | Postdoctoral Scholar | MIT |

I grew up as a farmer in China in a pre-industrial farming society. When I was born, my village had no cars, no telephones, no electricity, not even running water. Electricity was not introduced until the 1990s, and we didn’t have our first telephone until 2001. Naturally, we didn’t have good educational or modern medical resources. I remembered that students had to walk 90 minutes over mountainous terrain to our cheaply built schools in the countryside. Back then, I would have never thought I could make my way out from the poor countryside and get into the cities, let alone pursue a career in science in the United States.

Growing up as the first person in my family that ever made it to high school, college and then graduate school abroad, I have experienced the drastic contrasts of rural and modern life, between poverty and richness. I had not set foot in a city or used a computer when in 2005, I entered University of Science and Technology of China for college. It was then that I made my decision to become a scientist as I got more and more exposed to the many cools things scientists have done through class and seminars. I have always dreamed about this since I was a child. However, raised in the poor countryside, my parents both had limited education, and I have always felt science and research were very far away from me. I spent much of my childhood and teenage years learning how to farm after school: cultivating rice in the rice paddies, and plowing the field with water buffaloes. Modern techniques and innovations, as simple as televisions, were absent in that remote community as we couldn’t afford them at that time. But thanks to my admission to college, I got exposed to biomedical research for my undergraduate thesis. I majored in biology back then, and biomedical research fascinated me instantly because of its impact on human health. For my college thesis, I studied the role of protein kinases in cell cycle regulation, which resulted in my first academic publication in Briefings in Bioinformatics.

I came to the United States for graduate school in the Department of Molecular and Cellular Biology at Harvard University in 2009. My PhD work focused on developing novel imaging techniques and applying them to study biological processes at nanoscale. By applying single-virus tracking, super-resolution imaging, and other imaging techniques in combination with conventional biochemical and cellular approaches, my work elucidated molecular mechanisms of several host factors for influenza virus infection, and developmental mechanism and prevalence for a novel periodic membrane skeleton in neurons. My work appeared in several leading journals in my field, which was a pretty rewarding experience for a young scientist in training. It further convinced me that biomedical research was a great career track for myself, as the freedom to explore uncharted intellectual fields and the satisfaction one could get from those important scientific discoveries, were simply wonderful.

I would strongly encourage them to push themselves out of their comfort zone, explore whatever opportunities they can in order to find out what they are capable of. Every person has many unrealized talents and great potential.

At the time of this writing, I am a postdoc at MIT. The research lab focuses on leveraging engineering tools and nanotechnology to study the tissue microenvironment. Using engineered human liver tissue, a synthetic platform that supports many hepatic functions in vitro, I am investigating the functional role of host factors for malaria infection. Why is this important? Well, malaria impacts more than 200 million people worldwide. Our engineered human liver is the only in vitro platform that supports long-term human malaria infection at the liver stage. I am very hopeful that this work will undoubtedly elucidate key mechanisms for malaria infection and provide useful insights for combating drug resistance. A second area of research I work on is early cancer detection. Using nanotechnology and Bhatia lab’s unique synthetic biomarker platform to probe aberrantly regulated proteases in cancer microenvironment, I aim to develop techniques that can detect ovarian and breast cancer at an early stage.

While working on these cutting-edge scientific projects in graduate school, I often reflected on my experience growing up in the village. Something that greatly troubled my mind was the unequal distribution of science and knowledge throughout our world. Biomedical research is advancing rapidly each year. We have learned to edit the human genome and unlocked many secrets of how cancer progresses. However, worldwide, millions of people are still lacking basic medical resources. In May 2016, I was chosen as the student speaker for Harvard’s Commencement—considered as one of the highest honors for Harvard students—to share my thoughts on this issue. Speaking about an experience where my mother lit my hand on fire to cure a poisonous spider bite, I argued that an important aspect of our scientific research should be on “distributing the scientific knowledge we have to where it’s most needed”. I am so thankful that the speech has since sparked heated discussions on education and scientific research. I am reminded that many young students in the developing world, and also in the developed world, often feel lost as to what they can do in the future. I would strongly encourage them to push themselves out of their comfort zone, explore whatever opportunities they can in order to find out what they are capable of. Every person has many unrealized talents and great potential. Only through many trials and attempts can they find out their own path.

About Jiang He: Jiang He obtained his PhD degree from Harvard University, and is currently a postdoctoral researcher at MIT. He is listed on the Forbes 30 under 30 in healthcare in 2017, and selected as one of Spotlight Health Scholar at the Aspen Ideas Festival in Aspen Institute. Jiang is also known as the first Chinese student to deliver a commencement speech at Harvard.

Featured image is by Fanuel Muindi

From rural China to Harvard and beyond
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