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Meet Our Speakers: Yixian Zheng

October 21, 2022
by Suet Yin Sarah Fung

A conversation with Yixian Zheng by Sarah Fung

Meet Our Speakers: Yixian Zheng

Yixian Zheng is currently the director of the Department of Embryology at Carnegie Institute for Science.

Ahead of her talk as part of the Cell Biology department seminar series on October 25th, we had the pleasure of corresponding with Professor Zheng to briefly discuss her research and scientific journey.

Dr. Zheng graduated from Sichuan University with a B.S. in Genetics. Despite this, she candidly shared that a career in science was not what she wanted growing up. Having been raised during the Chinese Cultural Revolution, she aspired to be a novelist and spent a lot of her free time writing stories. Eventually, her desire to travel and experience the world motivated her to go abroad to pursue her graduate studies in Molecular Genetics with Dr. Beri Oakley at Ohio State University. This decision certainly did not disappoint as her contributions to the discovery of g-tubulin as a universal component of microtubule organization centers across species were made during these years as a graduate student. Her findings had immense impact in the field of cell biology and beyond. She continued to work on cytoskeletal organization during her postdoctoral studies with Professors Bruce Alberts and Tim Mitchison at the University of California, San Francisco. After a very productive postdoctoral career, she joined the department of Embryology at the Carnegie Institute for Science in 1996 with an adjunct Professorship in the department of Biology at Johns Hopkins University. At the Carnegie Institute for Science, she continues to make landmark discoveries on the coordination of signaling cascades with cell architecture such as the cytoskeleton and nuclear lamins to regulate fundamental cellular processes such as cell division and genome organization. Dr. Zheng has served and currently serves as members of multiple scientific editorial boards including those for Cell Research, the Journal of Cell Biology, Cell Discovery, and Nucleus.

Spindle Dynamics, Nuclear organization and Endosymbiosis

Her lab is currently working on three main areas: Spindle assembly with a focus on the mechanisms underlying the phase separation of a protein called BuGZ; Genome organization in development and aging, with a focus on how lamins influence mouse development and organogenesis/organ function through modulating genome organization; Cnidarian-alga endosymbiosis, with a focus on two organisms, a soft coral Xenia and green hydra.

Her broad scientific interests in multiple biological contexts is consistent with her approach towards research that is the constantly asking questions that push her research boundaries.

“I believe understanding biology requires us to understand how cells work. My studies of cytoskeleton led us to study nuclear organization by lamins because I found it difficult to imagine how signaling and transcriptional cascades can lead to the building of different cells and tissues at the right place and time.” She further notes, “Since the nuclear lamina proteins are connected to all forms of cytoskeleton, it made sense for us to study these proteins in the context of development.”

Since the nuclear lamina proteins are connected to all forms of cytoskeleton, it made sense for us to study these proteins in the context of development

Yixian Zheng

The recognition of this knowledge gap has led to her lab’s extensive publications on the crosstalk between intracellular matrix such as cytoskeleton and the nuclear envelope to promote genome organization and gene expression and other cellular functions. More recently, her lab used a combination of single cell RNA sequencing, gene expression modelling and pulse-chase methods to study coral-algae endosymbiosis. Dr. Zheng and her colleagues identified and elucidated the dynamics of genes responsible for endosymbiotic cell lineage development and function in Xenia, a species of the fast-growing soft coral.

When asked what some of her most memorable works are, she shares that she is particularly impressed by how advances in genomic and bioinformatic tools has made her lab’s discoveries on endosymbiosis with Xenia and green hydras as models possible. She also credits this to her outstanding postdoctoral fellows who brought expertise in genomics, molecular, developmental and cell biology to the table. To our delight, we realized that her lab’s interest in marine biology goes beyond the lab bench. Her lab enjoys outings and the photo attached to this article shows their most recent fishing trip.

Mentoring Scientists and Looking Forward

Her attitude towards research is also a reflection of her approach towards mentoring students and scientific trainees.

When asked what her mentoring style is, she points this out: “I believe it is important to enable independent thinking and encourage reading of scientific literature beyond one’s immediate field.”

This mindset of actively being in touch with other areas of research does not come to us as a surprise given that it has transpired collaborative efforts in making groundbreaking discoveries that bridge gaps between fields.

A mentor at heart when asked where she sees herself in ten years, Professor Zheng highlights her desire to see her former trainees succeed in their careers. Perhaps with the firm belief that a nurturing and stimulating environment is instrumental towards a rewarding career in research she continues, “and my immediate scientific environment to be vibrant and colleagues to be interactive and successful”.

Indeed, seeing the smiles captured on their adventure at sea, it is hardly possible to expect anything less!

Submitted by C. Patrick Lusk on October 21, 2022