This is part V of the Success Interview Series
The next guest on the Success Interview Series is Ms. Weijia Wang, who is a post doctoral fellow at the Peter Zandstra Lab at the University of Toronto. Weijia’s research expertise is in the stem cell arena.
As a fellow graduate from the University of Toronto, Weijia has recently won
- the 2012 OSCI Postdoctoral Fellowship Program.
- Check out Weijia’s official bio at Professor Zandstra’s website: http://stemcell.ibme.utoronto.ca/people/post_docs.html#weijia
I chatted with her on her academic experience and the research she is conducting.
1. Can you tell us a bit about your background?
I always had a deep interest in medicine and my dream was to become a doctor. So when I picked my undergraduate major I decided to study life science – pharmacology, as that was the closest to medicine (drug prescription). I studied as an undergraduate student at the University of Toronto.
During that time I realized pharmacology was not a subject I thoroughly enjoyed as there was a lot of memorization involved.
Furthermore, I felt that I would like to work on something more challenging such as making new discoveries or inventing applications for therapeutic purposes.
2. What was the turning point for you to decide to study and do research on stem cells?
In my fourth year I was doing a research project on bipolar disorder where I was looking at blood samples from patients and doing genotyping to understand if there is a genetic cause of bipolar disorder.
At that time, I still wanted to study medicine, but for international students the tuition fees were too expensive.
My mother was very supportive of me and she encouraged me to do graduate school instead.
I attended a guest lecture on stem cell research and the professor talked about how you can grow an ear on the back of a mouse. I was fascinated by how much a stem cell can do. In theory, a stem cell can make everything in your body. I decided right away that I wanted to do stem cell research.
Applying for graduate school was not easy, however my fourth year project supervisor was collaborating with a professor in a stem cell laboratory at the university.
With my good grades and outstanding completion of the research project, he make a recommendation to my graduate supervisor.
3. What tips do you have for balancing studying and researching within your Ph.D program?
I believe you need to be self-motivated and you need to plan your research or studies in advance. Strong organizational skills are also very important.
Also, you need to love what you do. I love doing research because there is no textbook for me to memorize and I love doing research on stem cells because it has many potential therapeutic applications.
My research on red blood cells potentially has numerous applications in therapeutic medicine. I would love to see my efforts make a difference in the medical field.
4. What were some challenges in doing research?
The main obstacle is you can get lost sometimes and feel your experiments are not going anywhere; this is particularly true in the short-term. Patience and the perseverance to stay-the-course is needed to sustain you through these periods.
Another concern I discovered is that some Ph.D. graduates have great difficulty finding a job in their relevant field. This made me frustrated.
Thankfully, I have a great support system comprising of my supervisors, lab mates, friends and family which give me support and encouragement even though sometimes I am making little progress in my research.
In particular, my supervisor and lab mates were very helpful with any questions I might have and I feel like we are part of a close knit group. It really helps to have people around you with similar goals and dreams. It makes you more motivated.
Another thing I really discovered in the beginning was to learn from mistakes and failures and always look for better ways (to do research.)
5. Could you tell us about your research and give us a glimpse of your experience as a Ph.D. student?
As of now, I have published 3 first-author papers and 1 book chapter. In my experience, networking and building relationships with other researchers is very important. Every year I will attend a number of national and international conferences to present my work and exchange ideas with my peers.
My research as a Ph.D. student was focused on characterizing factors which facilitate producing red blood cells for transfusions. I believe in a decade or two, we won’t need people to donate blood; people will be able to simply manufacture red blood cells from stem cells.
Now as a post doc, my research has shifted to developing novel strategies to expand stem cells from umbilical cord blood. Bone marrow transplantation has been the “gold-standard” and only curative therapy for patients with leukemia. However 30% of these patients cannot find a suitable bone marrow donor.
Umbilical cord blood is an alternative source of stem cells that are capable of restoring the blood system in patients upon transplantation. However, the limited number of stem cells in a single cord has restricted its use in pediatric patients. If we can expand these stem cells in culture, we will be able to treat adult patients who cannot find a match.
Several expansion strategies (including by our group) have started/will start to be validated in early-stage clinical trials in Canada and worldwide. This is a very exciting field which has so much potential in developing therapies that will cure diseases. I am really really happy to be part of it.
6. What is your long- term career plan?
I try to see the big picture and I hope 5 to 10 years down the road that I have my own research lab. I am more academically inclined so I am looking forward to becoming a professor in the near future.
Thanks Weijia for doing this interview with me 🙂
Here is a overview of Weijia’s research focus:
My take away lessons from Weijia:
1. Love what you do in your career. Weijia is very passionate about her research and she loves the work and potential impact her career has in clinical medicine.
2. Surround yourself with people of similar interest and aspirations. You are influenced by the people who surround you: it could be your family, friends or co-workers. The people around us have a strong impact on our motivation and aspirations so be careful who you choose to be your trusted friends. This reminds me of a famous quote by Jim Rohn:
You are the average of the five people you spend the most time with ~ Jim Rohn