Postdoctoral Research Fellow
Institute of Molecular and Cell Biology; Agency for Science, Technology and Research
AsianScientist (Feb. 28, 2019) – From the time an egg is fertilized by a sperm, a remarkably complex developmental program is initiated to create a whole new organism. Reading from the same instruction booklet, thousands of different cell types form and give rise to all the tissues and organs in the body. At the molecular level, different genes are switched on and off in an exquisitely precise and well-timed manner, failing which physical abnormalities and diseases occur.
Unravelling the secrets of an embryo’s developmental journey is Dr. Xue Shifeng, postdoctoral research fellow at the Institute of Molecular and Cell Biology of the Agency for Science, Technology and Research (A*STAR), Singapore. Applying genetic engineering tools to animal models such as the frog Xenopus laevis and the zebrafish Danio rerio, her team has discovered how specific gene mutations affect the expression of other genes in a regulatory network to derail the formation of a healthy fetus.
Given how some of these regulatory networks are conserved across multiple species, her findings could shed light on genetic diseases in humans as well. For her outstanding research, Xue received the Young Scientist Award at the 2018 President’s Science and Technology Awards in Singapore. Asian Scientist Magazine spoke to Xue to find out how she became interested to pursue a career in science.
- How would you summarize your research in a tweet?
I study how a single cell eventually develops into many different cell types in a complex animal, with a focus on how cells control what genes to turn on and off.
- Describe a completed research project that you are most proud of.
Recently we embarked on a project to study how the nose is formed. There is a rare disease known as Bosma arhinia microphthalmia syndrome (BAMS) where patients are born without a nose. It’s been described for over 30 years but no one knows the genetic basis of the condition.
By teaming up with scientists and clinicians from around the world, we were finally able to solve the mystery. We found that the disease is caused by mutations in the gene SMCHD1 which makes a protein that is important for keeping other genes turned off.
In BAMS patients, we think that mutations in SMCHD1 cause genes related to nose development to be turned off. We hope that these findings can help us understand better how the face is formed.
- What do you hope to accomplish with your research in the next decade?
I hope to understand more about how genes are regulated and use that knowledge to understand what goes wrong in diseases.
- Who (or what) motivated you to go into your field of study?
I took an undergraduate embryology lab class where I watched fish and frog embryos develop from eggs. It’s like looking at the beginning of life. It’s fascinating how the program to make a whole animal is present in every egg, and every embryo develops in the same way. How is the program designed? What stops mistakes from happening? These are questions that got me hooked.
- What is the biggest adversity that you experienced in your research?
Experiments fail all the time. It is easy, especially for young scientists, to feel discouraged. But it’s important to keep sight of the long term goals. It helps tremendously to have awesome mentors and colleagues to help and cheer you on when things don’t go as planned.
- What are the biggest challenges facing the academic research community today, and how can we fix them?
A lot of focus is going towards translational research and how we can put dollar value on a piece of research. While it is important that research gets translated into products, funding agencies cannot leave basic research behind. All translational research has its roots in basic research. Without good basic science, nothing can be translated. Therefore funding agencies need to sustain funding in basic research.
- If you had not become a scientist, what would you have done instead?
I’ve always been very technical-minded. I wanted to be a sound engineer, to work on recording, editing, mixing, designing sounds for music, games, movies and so on.
- Outside of work, what do you do to relax?
I play in a band; playing music relaxes me. I also enjoy just hanging out with family and friends.
- If you had the power and resources to eradicate any world problem using your research, which one would you solve?
Every parent wants healthy children. I hope that more genetic diseases can be detected in utero, so that fewer babies will be born with birth defects.
- What advice would you give to aspiring researchers in Asia?
Get the best training possible from anywhere in the world and come back to Asia to help put us on the map. Asia is definitely on the rise in terms of research quality and output, but we still need talent. To young aspiring scientists, get experience in labs as early as you can! Only then can you decide if research is right for you.
This article is from a monthly series called Asia’s Rising Scientists. Click here to read other articles in the series.
Copyright: Asian Scientist Magazine; Photos: Xue Shifeng.
Disclaimer: This article does not necessarily reflect the views of AsianScientist or its staff.