Asian Scientist Magazine Interviews MIT Picower Director, Dr. Li-Huei Tsai

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By | Editorials
July 11, 2011

Prof. Li-Huei Tsai, Director of the Picower Institute of Memory and Learning, shares with us her journey as a scientist.

MIT Prof. Li-Huei Tsai, Director of Picower Institute of Memory and Learning

AsianScientist (Jul. 11, 2011) – Dr. Li-Huei Tsai may be recognized for her research on neurodegenerative disease and psychiatric disorders, but in an alternate reality, this career may have never happened.

Graduating as as a veterinarian from National Chung Hsing University in Taiwan, Dr. Tsai had a steady career ahead of her. In a stroke of fate, she took classes in biology during her Masters degree at Wisconsin, which sealed her interest in neuroscience.

As a post-doctoral researcher, Dr. Tsai uncovered Cdk5 and its regulator, p53, both of which were only active in neurons; removing p35 in mice led to significant learning impairments.

In 2009, Dr. Tsai was appointed Director of the Picower Institute for Learning and Memory at MIT, where her lab investigates a gene called DISC1 (Disrupted in Schizophrenia 1). As its name suggests, DISC1 is a candidate gene for a number of psychiatric disorders, including schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, and major depression.

In the same year, Dr. Tsai – whose grandmother was previously diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease – identified an enzyme called HDAC2 (histone deacetylase-2) that played a role in Alzheimer’s. Using experimental drugs called HDAC inhibitors, her team reversed an Alzheimer’s-like disease in mice and restored the animals’ long-term memory. Her research has far-reaching implications – could we use these drugs to treat Alzheimer’s hallmark neurodegeneration, a condition that afflicts 30 million people worldwide? Dr. Tsai certainly hopes so.

In a chat with AsianScientist Magazine, Dr. Tsai shares with us her journey to becoming a neuroscientist, how she achieves a work-life balance, and her thoughts on R&D in Taiwan.


Dr. Tsai, you started off university in veterinarian school, what made you want to pursue a career in neuroscience?

When I was in university back in Taiwan, I did not have the opportunity to do research, so I majored in veterinary studies. However, after graduating, I did not feel like practicing as a veterinarian. I decided to further my studies in the US and try the style of research there. It so happened that I liked it, and I decided to stay on.


But the training you received from vet school is very different from biological research. How did you overcome the knowledge gap?

I first started with a Masters degree which was vet-related at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Then, during my PhD studies, I focused on molecular biology research at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas. It was not until after I became an assistant professor that I really dove into the field of neuroscience – and it has been seventeen years since then.


The US is a progressive country for researchers of all backgrounds and gender. However, based on your previous experiences, have you faced any hurdles in the US as a female Asian scientist?

First of all, from my personal experience, I have not faced any particular obstacle that is different from any other scientist in the US. We know that the environment in the US is changing. These days, conference organizers are making a greater effort to invite speakers from diverse backgrounds. So if you compare this to twenty years ago, the situation has improved significantly.

Similar changes are also taking place in Taiwan. Take Academia Sinica for example. At the Institute of Molecular Biology and the Institute of Biomedical Sciences, 50 percent of the faculty members are female.

However, it is undoubtedly hard to balance work and family. I have one daughter and I think my work commitments are one of the reasons for having only one child. Compared to other mothers, I probably won’t be the best one, but neither am I like the ‘Tiger Mother’ who pushes her daughter to achieve – I simply can’t because I do not have the time and energy for that. Also, unlike other mothers, I never show up at parent-teacher association meetings in school, and I travel a fair bit as well.

But I believe you have to reach a compromise and achieve a balance between work and life. For me, it is equally important to have both my career and family – I cannot just have one. Hence, if my daughter and I want to spend time together over the weekend, she would join me at my office and do her homework while I am busy with my own work. My daughter is growing up in my office and laboratory – she likes to come over and make friends with the postdocs and students here.


It must be incredible to have a scientist like you for a mom.

Not really. For children, it can sometimes get very stressful because of all the expectations placed on them.

But I think everyone is different. Some women may rather be stay-home moms and take care of their children full-time after giving birth. That is a wonderful thing, but this option has never occurred to me. Ultimately, at the end of the day, you need to do what makes you happy and fulfilled.


Would you encourage students in Taiwan and Asia to study and work in the US? In your opinion, what are the biggest differences in the research environments of the two countries?

Well, there are big differences between both countries. I think the biggest difference lies in the research environment of each place.

In Boston, there is everything you need, and we are exposed to many available resources on a daily basis. For example, there are always seminars and talks by international-level speakers from around the world taking place on campus. Also, you can find the latest cutting-edge technologies in Boston, because novel research starts from here and spreads out to the world. In Taiwan, it tends to take a longer time to get access to the technology. Hence, I would say it is the exposure that is the biggest difference.

As for funding, although funding is always hard to get in either place, at MIT we not only receive money from government grants, but we also receive philanthropic donations. These private donors really support the progress of science.

On a personal level, as an Asian researcher, I may be generalizing but we tend to work very hard and be helpful to others, which makes people like us as a team member.

Hence, when people describe the glass ceiling phenomenon for Asian professionals in the US, they may indirectly be referring to the Asian culture and education. The style of education in Asia does not prepare its students to become leaders in their field; that has never been the purpose of the Asian education system. However, the US education system has a strong focus on leadership and independent thinking, and the whole environment is geared towards encouraging its students to be leaders. This may be something we could change in Asia.


Are there many international students from Asia enrolled in the neuroscience program at MIT?

Yes. There are many international graduate students here, especially students from China. Right now, we receive many applications from China, Taiwan and other countries in Asia. In order to evaluate these candidates better, we plan to send a team to China to interview top students and give them admission right away if they are qualified. As an institute we are making an effort to recruit more international students.


As an overseas Taiwanese scientist and Research Fellow of Academia Sinica, how do you maintain your connection with Taiwan?

My connection with Taiwan is through Academia Sinica. I would like to do more, but unfortunately my time is really limited. However, I am an adviser to both the Institute of Biomedical Sciences and Institute of Molecular Biology.

Every year, I go back to Taiwan twice or more to give seminars or evaluations. Recently, Academia Sinica has been working towards establishing an Institute of Neuroscience and I am helping with that initiative.


Your research specialty, neuroscience, is a highly interdisciplinary field. Do you have any advice for students hoping to prepare for a career similar to yours?

I think most people who are in the neuroscience field did not start off as a neuroscientist. Many people start with physics, electrical engineering or computer science, before moving into neuroscience.

I think that it is important to have a multidisciplinary background, and your undergraduate degree is a good time for this. Most people can definitely pick up neuroscience easily if they want to do neuroscience research, but having a basic foundation in other areas is also important.

I think MIT is perfect for cross-disciplinary work because it attracts people from diverse fields and provides an open platform for them to interact. Meeting other researchers from different backgrounds on a social level is equally important even if discussions aren’t about science. This is because if you share the same interests, you would feel like working with that person on something together, which may create an opportunity for collaboration.


You are known for your research in the field of Alzheimer’s disease. Could you share with us the progress in this field, and whether it is possible to find a cure for it in the next decade?

We currently have many approaches toward the prevention or delay of Alzheimer’s disease, but I don’t think it is possible to completely cure it. I think it is highly possible that we may be able to prolong its onset for five years or alleviate the side effects from the disease.


Besides your research on Alzheimer’s disease, your research also focuses on schizophrenia. How is schizophrenia different from Alzheimer’s at the neurological level, and what is so interesting about this disease that motivates you to study it?

I study it because schizophrenia is totally unknown; no one knows entirely what is going on. This disease is fascinating to me. It is not about the death of cells or neurons, but the behavior of the individual. No one can explain the disease at the molecular and mechanistic level, and it is still highly descriptive. Therefore, it is truly an interesting challenge to make sense of.

And schizophrenia research is another example of interdisciplinary work. Circuit mapping is important to inform us which part of the brain is affected and what cell types are involved. So there are a lot of multidisciplinary interactions taking place.

Also, schizophrenia is not a rare disease. About three to four percent of the general population has schizophrenia or bipolar disorder – which makes schizophrenia more common than Alzheimer’s disease. Schizophrenia and bipolar disease show familial inheritance – in families some members have schizophrenia while others have bipolar disorder.


Finally, what would you say are the important characteristics for someone who wants to be a scientist?

First of all, you need to identify the big questions that are worth answering – questions that are meaningful and influential. I think that asking the right questions is the most important skill for a scientist. Once you have asked the right question, you can always find a way to answer it, given an adequate amount of resources. The ability to ask the right questions cannot be built in a day. You have to learn how to ask the right questions gradually.

For example, when one is evaluating research, and later asked to state the bottom line or describe the big picture, what is the most important thing that comes to mind? That should be an immediate reflex. Hence, when thinking about research topics, you need to train yourself to find the crux of the problem, before working towards answering it.

And of course, persistence is a good quality. Feeling frustrated is inevitable, but always stay confident – persistence is the key to being a scientist.


Read more about Prof. Tsai’s research at:
Tsai Lab, MIT
The Tsai Lab Website
HHMI

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Copyright: Asian Scientist Magazine.
Disclaimer: This article does not necessarily reflect the views of AsianScientist or its staff.

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