Xiao Wang is a Thomas D. and Virginia W. Cabot Professor of Chemistry at MIT in the Department of Chemistry. In 2019, Professor Wang joined MIT and the Broad, where she became the first Core Member of the Broad Institute with an academic appointment in the Department of Chemistry. Professor Wang’s group works to develop and apply new chemical, biophysical, and genomic tools to better understand brain function and dysfunction at the molecular level.
How it began: from math to chemistry
Professor Wang’s impressive scientific achievements began in grade school as a competitor in national math competitions in China. “I liked mathematics,” says Wang, “because all you need to do is think. It’s kind of like your own game without worrying about instruments.” Her thinking skills led her to excel in competition, ultimately resulting in her admission to a math and science high school.
It was in high school where her interests first began to pivot from mathematics to chemistry. In her middle school chemistry classes, Wang was left unsatisfied by lackluster answers and explanations of chemical processes, saying, “In middle school and high school you just need to memorize, so all you need to memorize is the symbol of elements. They may show some interesting reactions to make you interested, but the explanation is not satisfactory.” At her high school, however, things were different: Wang was able to take chemistry classes with college professors and perform research in university chemistry labs. Once she got to dive deeper into the details of chemical reactions in high school, she was totally hooked. “We learned about molecular orbitals, crystal structures,” says Wang, “it was totally a game changer.”
With a growing interest in chemistry, Wang went on to compete in national chemistry competitions. Her gold-medal win at a nationwide chemistry competition in China granted her early admission to the prestigious Peking University. At Peking University, Wang worked in the lab of Professor Jian Pei, who was integral to her early development as a scientist. Even though Wang was still an undergrad, Professor Jian Pei treated Wang like a graduate student, giving Wang her own project and complete control over its design.
These skills later led Wang to thrive in her PhD working with Professor Chuan He at the University of Chicago, and then later on in her post-doc supported by Life Science Research Foundation and Moore Foundation with Professor Karl Deisseroth at Stanford. In particular, Wang’s independence allowed her to chart new territories in the Deisseroth lab, setting up her own “mini nucleic acids biochemistry lab within the big [Deisseroth] lab.” In her post-doc, Wang developed new methods to analyze both RNA localization and sequence in intact brain tissue. In addition, she collaborated with an interdisciplinary team of people to work on the neuroscience and computational aspects of the project while pioneering the biochemistry work herself. Working with this interdisciplinary team of scientists later helped her build her own team and lab in Boston.
Building communities: exploring the diversity of life in the U.S.
When Professor Wang first moved to the US, she found a great community of fellow international students in Chicago. Serendipitously, Wang ended up in a cohort with seven of her undergraduate classmates, saying about her experience, “I feel lucky that I actually had a lot of Chinese friends from college… seven people from Peking University came to the same department. That’s never happened before or after.” However, Wang’s friends weren’t just those from college; the large international student body allowed her to meet people from all over the world, saying, “I have friends who came from Korea, Japan, Europe. I feel like I just met people from everywhere.” This large international community helped Wang adjust to life in the States, providing her with a sense of belonging in a country that was not her own.
Upon transitioning to her postdoc at Stanford, Wang took the opportunity to more thoroughly explore American culture. Wang said “The majority of the [Deisseroth] lab was U.S. students and postdocs and staff scientists. I had a really great cultural experience there. Lab events helped introduce Wang to elements of California culture that might otherwise seem mundane. “For lab events we went to Napa Valley and other wineries. That’s when I discovered [Americans] like wine so much,” says Wang. “And also, we played poker games.”
Like many of us in graduate school, Professor Wang was not always certain she wanted to pursue a career in academia. She considered various options, such as becoming a patent lawyer, working in the pharmaceutical industry, or even becoming a science writer. Her decision to do a post-doc and continue on in academia was heavily influenced by her experience at a Gordon Research Conference that she attended as a graduate student. Gordon Research Conferences typically have research seminars in the morning, but the afternoons are left totally free to encourage socializing and networking between trainees and faculty. The sense of community she felt at the conference motivated her to become a professor. “[At] every scientific conference you are gathering and reuniting with old friends. I think that’s rare for other types of jobs,” says Wang. Like her experience in graduate school, Wang realized that a career in academia would enable her to establish friendships and make connections with people all over the world. “You can have old friends all over the world, you see them several times a year… that’s the life I want to have. You have some long-lasting friendships and you are doing the things you want to do.”
By the end of graduate school, Wang had a good idea of what she wanted to do in her independent career. In choosing her post-doc lab, Wang looked for a lab where she would glean the missing skills she needed to pursue her own independent projects, saying, “I wanted to study the diversity of RNA in tissues and then I felt like imaging is something that I really wanted to do. So, it’s kind of like I already a little bit imagined what I wanted to do with my own lab, and what was the missing piece, and you fill that missing piece during your postdoc.”
The skills she learned in her postdoc and the techniques she developed ultimately became the foundation of her current lab, where her group uses dual nucleic acid imaging and sequencing techniques to study how gene regulation affects the brain structure and function. But just a few short months after Wang opened her lab at MIT and the Broad, the world–and the lab–shut down due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Wang was frustrated to say the least; she could no longer work hands on with her students while trying to get her lab up and running. “I thought that for the first half of the year I could teach students in the lab how to do experiments,” says Wang, “But later on, for several months the lab was closed, and there were also several months where you could be there, but you had to be several feet away. How do you teach people how to do experiments that way?” Despite these challenges, Professor Wang and her students kept forging a path forward, gaining new members and putting out new papers even in these trying times.
Finally, Professor Wang offers some advice for young scientists who are interested in academia. “Cherish your own passions and don’t live by other people’s opinions,” says Wang. Curiosity, creativity, and a passion for science can easily be lost when trying to live up to other people’s expectations. Afterall, “It’s always more fun and fulfilling to try your own ideas,” says Wang.