Feb 13, 2015

She Does It Her Way (And It Works)

Education, Research, Students
Yuqing Wang

Jim Oldfield

Yuqing Wang

“Don’t stay in school.” Most kids never hear those words from their parents. But when Yuqing Wang announced she would do a PhD at the University of Toronto, her mother was upset.

Wang’s parents felt she had been in school long enough. They wanted her to get a job and earn money. And they were worried she was neglecting her personal life. As emigrants from China, they had seen too many women struggle to find husbands after years of university.

“It’s a phenomenon in China,” says Wang, now a fifth-year doctoral student in the Department of Biochemistry. “Many women with higher education have trouble finding partners. They spend a lot of time studying and not much dating. And some men don’t like the idea of women as breadwinners.”

But after many talks about job and family prospects for doctoral grads in Canada, Wang’s parents warmed up to her plan for more school. “Now they tell their friends in China, ‘My daughter is doing a PhD at the University of Toronto.’ I think they’re kind of proud,” says Wang.

It helps that in the last five years, Wang has won three scholarships, lead-authored two papers in a respected journal and found a new way to measure an important process in cell death called mitophagy.

Wang is a student in two labs — a choice she was warned against by colleagues rather than family. Some students said that two supervisors could mean double a normal workload. But the researchers Wang studies with work closely together on Parkinson’s disease and other brain disorders, and Wang says it’s been a great experience.

She studies mitochondria, which are tiny structures that provide cells with energy. Normally mitochondria break down nutrients and provide fuel for molecules in a process called cellular respiration. But when this process goes awry, mitochondria can release reactive oxygen species, which can kill cells.

A leading theory in Parkinson’s research is that people with the disease have restricted autophagy, or ability to remove damaged mitochondria. These dysfunctional mitochondria then release reactive oxygen species that kill brain cells.

Researchers have found two proteins that prevent the removal of damaged mitochondria in Parkinson’s disease. They hope to create drugs that target those proteins, so they’re altering the function of the proteins and observing the effects on mitochondria. Wang developed a method to measure the rate of mitochondria removal with a microscope, which will help researchers build the knowledge they need for drugs that fight Parkinson’s.

“I really enjoy the discovery part of lab work. The possibility of observing something nobody has seen before is very exciting,” says Wang.

Wang developed an interest in mitochondria as an undergraduate student at U of T. She did a summer project on yeast mitochondria in the lab of Angus McQuibban, a Professor in the Department of Biochemistry, who is now one of her supervisors. She liked the science and the way McQuibban ran the lab — hands off, so students control their own projects.

She also liked McQuibban’s’s ethics: passion and hard work.

Wang credits McQuibban and her other PhD supervisor, Peter Kim, for showing her the value of those ethics in the lab. Kim is an Assistant Professor of Biochemistry at U of T and a Scientist at The Hospital for Sick Children, where Wang spends most of her time.

Kim’s lab studies the creation and degradation of organelles — organ-like structures inside cells — in peroxisome biogenesis disorder, a rare and fatal disease in children. They also study brain disorders and cancer, and recently they found their results may be relevant in Parkinson’s.

Passion and hard work are paying off for Wang outside the lab too. She became a Canadian citizen last August, and while writing her citizenship test she realized she had done little to help her new community. A few days later she saw an ad for the Toronto Distress Centre on the subway and called to volunteer.

“After three months of training I was ready. Some callers just want to chat, others are in acute distress with serious mental health challenges. It’s very rewarding to connect with these people and to help them, even in a small way.” Wang spends about four hours a week at the centre and says she will do similar work wherever she goes.

Wang will likely choose a postdoctoral fellowship in industry as her next career step. She says there is a risk her skills will become so specialized that jobs options begin to narrow. “But industry postdocs are a great way to continue doing discovery work in the lab, and to get a new perspective on careers in science,” she says.

No doubt someone will counsel against that move. Do her parents know about it? “Not yet,” Wang says. “That’s the next battle.”