Haoyi Wang’s doctoral adviser had a difficult project.
“So difficult,” says Mark Johnston, PhD, former professor and interim chair of genetics at the School of Medicine, “I was worried about giving it to him.”
Not to worry. Wang, who earned a doctorate in biology and biomedical science in the Graduate School of Arts & Sciences, made it work.
The project, envisioned by Wang’s co-adviser Robi Mitra, PhD, assistant professor of genetics, involved developing a technique for mapping all the genes in a cell that respond to a particular genetic switch.
“Genes are turned on and off by transcription factors, which bind to particular genes,” Wang says.
“If you can understand what the transcription factors are doing on a genome-wide basis,” Johnston says, “you’ve gone a long way to understanding why a skin cell turns into a skin cell and a nerve cell turns into a nerve cell.”
“We engineered transcription factors so that when they visit a gene, they leave behind a little piece of DNA,” Wang says. “We call that piece a calling card.
“We can look at the genome to see where the calling cards are, and that tells us which genes the transcription factors visited,” Wang says.
In his last year of doctoral study, Wang got the calling-card technique to work in both yeast and mammalian cells.
Now a postdoctoral researcher at the prestigious Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research in Cambridge, Mass., he is applying the calling-card technique to stem cells.
It could have turned out differently.
Wang, a native of Baoding, China, wasn’t sure he wanted to do research.
Like many international students, he found the transition to life in the United States tough. At first, he was homesick and depressed.
All that changed in St. Louis.
“He came here just as we were moving into the new Center for Genome Sciences,” Johnston says. “There was a real sense of community, and he fit into that community.”
“I was very fortunate in my mentors,” Wang says. “Johnston and Mitra were so enthusiastic, imaginative and collaborative. They made science very attractive.”
Wang also joined the Chinese Students and Scholars Association (CSSA) at WUSTL, twice serving as its president.
The CSSA sponsors activities to promote the welfare of Chinese graduate students, from Chinese New Year celebrations to Chinese movie nights.
Wang particularly was interested in supporting new students, who were picked up at the airport and given phone cards so that they could call home to let their family know they had arrived safely.
These new students also were introduced to senior students through CSSA, which helped them settle into their new lives in the United States, and made CSSA a more welcoming and active community.
“Haoyi was a leader within the CSSA, and he was also a leader at the university and national graduate student levels,” says Elaine P. Berland, PhD, associate dean of the Graduate School of Arts & Sciences.
“He is an example of how the world’s leading research universities educate graduate students not only as excellent researchers and teachers but also as future leaders,” Berland says.
“We think he’s going to be president of China some day,” Johnston says.
But that’s in the future. Right now, he is seeking to get his risky research to pay off.
Wang knows the risks better than anyone, but he feels they are worth taking.
“Bench work,” he says, “is tedious.
“You follow a protocol, which might have 50 steps, and most of the time, it doesn’t work the first couple of times you try,” Wang says.
“So I’ve made up my mind that if in the future I have my own lab, we will ask only the most important and exciting questions,” Wang says.
“Because then if you try twice and it doesn’t work, you can then remind yourself that if it works, it will be not just nice, it will be huge, and you’ll try the third time.”
“I think he’s going to be a world-class scientist,” Johnston says.