Following the ‘Tinman’
Scientist Li Qian, PhD, has forged an award-winning career at the UNC School of Medicine. In just a few short years since joining the faculty, she's been recognized for her cardiac research by The American Heart Association. She was the first-ever recipient of the Boyalife, Science and Science Translational Medicine Award in Stem Cell and Regenerative Medicine. And now she has earned a UNC School of Medicine Jefferson-Pilot Fellowship in Academic Medicine, which includes $20,000 to be used toward scholarly endeavors.
We caught up with Qian, assistant professor of pathology and laboratory medicine at the UNC School of Medicine and member of the McAllister Heart Institute, to discuss her research in cardiac reprogramming, her goal to inspire young women to pursue careers in science, and how and why she chose the UNC School of Medicine.
As a young girl growing up in China, did you ever imagine you'd spend your career in science, studying the heart, at a university in the United States? What were some of the obstacles you've had to overcome to follow your dreams?
When I was little, I was always encouraged to do what I wanted and follow my dreams, especially pursuing my interest in science. My parents both work for a university. My dad is a professor of engineering and my mom is an accountant. I was quite fortunate that we lived in a positive and open environment – one that fostered the growth that's critical for one's future success.
I was drawn to science by curiosity as a kid. I clearly remember the first time I ever saw a cell under a microscope. It was the onion cell experiment. Ever since then, I have always been fascinated by the question of how a single cell becomes an organ and, ultimately, becomes a whole life form.
At the time I graduated from college in China, one of the best places to do basic research was the States because of its reputation in basic science, the opportunity to work with world-renowned scientists and the strong infrastructure and cutting-edge technology.
I also like the diversity, openness and welcoming atmosphere to people from different backgrounds. However, as an incoming international student, getting started in a completely different environment was extremely challenging. Imagine the language barriers I had when I first came to this country. I could barely understand a sentence if the conversation was not face-to-face. My PhD mentor, Rolf Bodmer, witnessed and complimented me when he realized that I followed the American dream by growing from a shy international student into a dynamic young leader in science.
You always knew that you wanted to pursue some field of science. How did you become interested in the heart?
It was the story of the "Tinman." In the 1980s, I read in the news that a neurobiologist at the University of Michigan used fruit flies to identify master genes that regulate neuronal cell fate. He was screening for important transcription factors critical in the development of the peripheral nervous system, but serendipitously identified a homeobox gene that, when mutated, resulted in the absence of heart formation in the fruit fly. He was fascinated by this discovery and named the gene the Tinman, which is a reference to "The Wizard of Oz." This work was published in 1989, and after that follow-up studies identified the vertebrate counterpart of the Tinman gene, NKX2.5. By studying a family in Pennsylvania with a high incidence of congenital heart disease, scientists from Harvard University found that the disease was caused by a mutation in NKX2.5. The scientist who identified Tinman was Dr. Bodmer, my PhD mentor. His work opened up the field and I was lucky to have a chance to work with him in his lab.
Your research is now focused on cardiac reprograming – converting cardiac scar tissue cells into functional cardiomyocytes. What are your immediate and long-term goals for this research?
Basic research is so important. We never know how basic research will be used in identifying factors that cause diseases. When Rolf discovered the Tinman gene, he did not know that there would be a family whose cardiac disease could be traced back to that gene.
For me, I want to see my research and my approach used on a patient. That's the immediate goal, within five to 10 years. I know there's so much research that needs to be done to really help a patient one day.
It will take some time, but we are collaborating with many labs in the field and we share with them our unpublished data to accelerate the field. And it's only if we all work together to accelerate our research that we can realize our goal of helping patients with our approach as soon as possible.
But, in terms of career goals, it never ends. In terms of heart disease, there are always new diseases that are being discovered. One therapy might be a good treatment, but then a better treatment might come along. We always try to address the most urgent, most challenging question in the field. But it's always changing. I think my lab will continue to take on the major challenges in the field.
Even with reprogramming, our lab will work to develop therapies and targeted medicine beyond the type of cardiac disease we are working on now. Research-wise, there's just no end. There are so many things I can do.
You've mentioned that mentorship – both as a mentor and a mentee – played a big part in your early career and why you made the decision to come to UNC. Why is that so important to you?
It's incredibly important to me to help mold young scientists, especially young women scientists in this field. My lab has a lot of young women trainees. It's very rewarding for me to mentor and promote the next generation of scientists. I am grateful that my former mentors trained me in a very positive, encouraging, and supportive manner. It helps to build a positive research environment that fosters the love of science and the spirit of teamwork.
UNC has a lot of brilliant women studying, doing research, and practicing medicine, and that really influenced my decision to join the faculty here. UNC has done such a wonderful job in promoting women scientists. That's a very effective way to attract young female scientists to come here to start their careers. At multiple levels, they are viewed as role models for young scientists, especially young women scientists.
Your husband is also a basic scientist at UNC who studies the heart. What are your family dinner conversations like? Do you encourage your daughters to pursue careers in science or medicine?
Although we are both scientists, we talk about a lot of different things at our dinner table, from things that happened in my daughters' school, their love for ice skating, and, of course, science. Because of these conversations, my older daughter, who is now 10, has asked me about cell reprograming and how it works.
I fully respect their choices they make for their education and their careers when they grow up. I encourage them to find their passions and follow their dreams, but I will also certainly create an environment for them so that they will be exposed to science and technology.
I go to my daughters' schools to give lectures a few times a year. Science and biology are a big part of it, but it's not just to share the science. It's to tell the students: anything is possible; be wild and be crazy with your goals; be brave, and go on to realize your goals and your dreams.