Q&A with Feng Zhang, PI of the genome-engineering lab @MIT
Genetics researcher and "technology titan" featured in Cell journal's 40 under 40
By the Cell Team Posted on 23 September 2014
Dr. Feng Zhang is a Principal Investigator at MIT and the Broad Institute. His research focuses on technology development and the role of genetic and epigenetic mechanisms underlying diseases of the nervous system. He was featured as part of Cell's 40 Under 40.
To celebrate 40 years of Cell, the journal's editorial team invited 40 scientists from around the world who are working in many biological fields — all under the age of 40 — to talk about science, their personal philosophies, the joys and challenges of research, and their lives away from the bench. When choosing which scientists to highlight, the editorial team focused on young researchers from diverse scientific and geographical areas who are grappling with questions that are on the cutting edge of science. Many of these researchers have already made significant contributions to their field of study and are recipients of various awards and accolades.
1. What are the questions that inspire your lab?
One of the main questions of my lab is how genetic variations and epigenetic dynamics contribute to normal biological function and disease processes. In order to study this question, we need new tools that allow us to perturb the genome or epigenome with precision and to subsequently observe the effect of the perturbation. It turns out that nature has already engineered many of these tools, and they are hidden in many biological processes that surround us. Over the past several years, we have been harnessing some of these natural processes and converting them into useful biological tools for neuromodulation and genome or epigenome editing. Now we are beginning to use these tools to study the role of epigenetic changes in the nervous system, and eventually we hope that these tools and the discoveries made using them will help us treat devastating diseases, particularly ones affecting the nervous system.
2. Who are the scientists, living or dead, that you admire? If you could, who would you work with?
I admire many scientists who are madly passionate about their work, even if the subject is arcane and seemingly impractical. Oftentimes, these things turn out to be extremely important. I would love to be able to work with Leonardo da Vinci, Thomas Edison, and Steve Jobs and experience the passion that they poured into their work.
I also really admire those highly effective teams of scientists and engineers who have been able to come together and create miracle discoveries and inventions (for example, Watson and Crick, the original Macintosh team, and the Bell Labs). Teamwork is a significant part of science. When the right group people who have unique backgrounds and ideas come together, they synergize and resonate to create breakthroughs. I would love to experience being a part of such a team.
3. Which Cell papers, from any era, have struck you as truly elegant or inspired?
The iPS reprogramming paper from Shinya Yamanaka's group is one of the most inspiring papers I have read in Cell (Takahashi, K., and Yamanaka, S. . Cell 126, 663–676). It made me realize that biology really is a programmable system, and we just need to figure out the instruction set.
4. What is your guiding philosophy for running your lab? Your personal philosophy?
I always emphasize the importance of working on something you are passionate about. Then everything will be like a hobby and will be fun. I also encourage everyone to have a clear vision and to take intellectual risks by working on things that have the potential to make a big impact. Maybe this is because I grew up reading about entrepreneurs who have repeatedly failed but never gave up until they finally succeeded with their vision. Finally, I think it is important to fail quickly by designing a small number of key experiments that can help you make go-or-no-go decisions rapidly.
5. What are some unique skills that didn't make it to your CV? What are some personal hobbies?
I like to read, draw, and cook whenever I have time. I like to work with my hands and build things.
6. What is the biggest challenge facing young scientists? Do you have a solution?
There are many challenges facing young scientists today, including shortage of funding, difficulty attracting talent, long working hours, and the allure of more financially lucrative professions. The best way for me to resolve these challenges is by working on things that I really enjoy and believe in and working with other people who are similar minded. Many of my grant applications were rejected but I just wrote more applications.
7. If you were to choose another career either now or in 20 years, what would it be?
I feel very fortunate to have chosen my current career, and I would choose it again even in 20 years. Having my own laboratory allows me to pursue my own curiosities and directly test out any idea I have. I have also really enjoyed the process of assembling a team of really fantastic students and postdocs who are equally passionate about science and building a culture that encourages innovation and disruptive ideas that can make a positive impact in the world.
8. Working in science is wonderful and challenging but is not without drawbacks. What has been a particular challenge to you?
Science is exciting and extremely time consuming. Sometimes it is easy to get sucked into an experiment or discussion and lose track of time. One of the challenges that I found is that it's difficult to maintain a good balance of work and personal time.
9. Any words of wisdom for those looking for a career in biology?
I think it is very important to have good mentors. I have benefited tremendously from the extraordinary mentorship I received throughout my education and training—Ed Pilkington, John Levy, Xiaowei Zhuang, Karl Deisseroth, Guoping Feng, Bob Desimone, Eric Lander, Ed Scolnick, David Altshuler, and many more have all played a key role in my growth and development.
Elsevier Connect Contributors
The 40 under 40 project team worked together on the questions posted to the scientists to highlight their research and scientific philosophy. Team members are Dr. Karen Carniol, Julie Fiorilla, Anna Hofvander, Dr. Mirna Kvajo, Dr. Jiaying Tan, Andrew Tang and Andy Smith.