By Shrobona Guha
Liang Oscar Qiang, MD, PhD, is a research assistant professor in the Department of Neurobiology & Anatomy.
Shrobona Guha: So, you have an MD degree and a PhD. What made you decide to pursue a PhD after an MD?
Liang Oscar Qiang, MD, PhD: I thought I wanted to be a doctor originally, but then after medical school, I found it interesting to do basic research. I had done summer internships in universities as a medical student back in China. I found science really interesting with all the techniques and use of new, ever-evolving technology. I think medical education is different from science and science involves more creative thinking. I wanted to be a doctor who could also conduct research, but at one point when I had to choose, I chose science.
Why did you choose to move to the United States for your further studies?
I think there is a lot of freedom in the U.S. in terms of what you can do. The medical science in the U.S. was way better at the time I decided to pursue a PhD but now the research in China is catching up. The U.S. is a hub for research, where it is easier to collaborate and learn new technologies.
How did you come to join Dr. Peter Baas’ lab as a graduate student?
During my interview for the program, Peter interviewed me as the program director. I had a lot of interest in cell culture work. I had previously used non-neuronal cell culture work in China. Peter introduced me to the work in his lab and I was very impressed by his work. So, when I joined the program, I thought that was where I should go. I did do one rotation with Dr. Gianluca Gallo, who works with actin. Both of the mentors were really nice, and it was a very difficult decision for me to make at the time, but I went with my first instinct and chose Peter’s lab.
After graduating, you were a postdoc at Columbia University. Can you tell us a little bit about the kind of research you conducted there?
I did my research on using the reprogramming of stem cell technology to model neurodegenerative disease. I studied Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease in Asa Abeliovich’s lab. I learned a lot of techniques and technologies in cell reprogramming, as well as iPSC. The transition from microtubule research to stem cell research was hard for the first half of the year and I had to read a lot.
A bit of advice for students seeking to transition would be that all the students should be prepared for the stress. When you stay in the same field there is an adaption in the new lab environment but when you decide to change your field, sometimes you may want to broaden your environment, broaden your research. I think it’s healthy to want that, but I think it is normal for people to feel stressed out and anxious because you’re going into a new field.
Then you moved to an industry job after your postdoc? How did you make that decision to move from academia to industry? Why did you move back?
I was looking for both academic and industry jobs before I joined a startup company. The company gave me the freedom to try my own ideas, utilize my knowledge to plan my research. It was different and I enjoyed my time there. Industries focus more on profit, like how to get a patent, how to get a product; while in academia, you think more about how to get your grant funded, how to get your papers published. I was in that company for 2 years; I got the industry experience, but I still liked the uncertainties that came with science. In an industry, you know what your goal is and that’s what you should get with a product. I can’t say which one is better. I liked the hypothesis-driven nature of science in academia. I also like to be surrounded by young people and talking to people who want to learn things. It’s very refreshing and rewarding to see that.
So, when Peter had a grant on stem cells and he needed a person to work on it, he reached out to me. I kind of wanted to come back to academia, so here I am. And it’s Drexel! I like Drexel; it's less stressful and the people here are very nice so I came back. A big challenge though was the pay cut, because in industry they paid you double the salary in academia. I decided to take that cut to do what was interesting to me.
Having worked on varied fields of research what do you consider your true research passion?
Oh, I think it’s to work on neurodegenerative or neurodevelopmental disease, mostly because of my medical background. I also want to learn about the plasticity of neurons. What can a normal or diseased neuron do to fight on their own? What’s the molecular basis of plasticity, the molecular basis of developing and treating a disease? That is very interesting to me.
What would you consider your most memorable discovery?
I think it was my first paper with Peter, where we found that Tau protects the Katanin severing of microtubules. It has now been proved by different labs, but we were the first ones to show that Tau is regulating the activity of severing proteins by protecting the microtubules. I think it was my favorite also because it was my first project. The paper was accepted on the first submission without any revisions. I won multiple awards for that discovery, including the platform presentation for the work as a first-year graduate student.
How would you describe the perfect balance between teaching, benchwork and running a lab?
I don’t have a lot of teaching responsibilities, but I do enjoy teaching in small groups, more like a stimulating discussion, problem-based learning. Stimulate students to participate instead of learning mechanically, which is very important as a graduate student. As much as I like to do research on the bench, I find myself less and less involved with benchwork because I have to write a lot of grants. I have to read a lot and think of experiments. But I think it’s a very interesting balance.
Once in awhile I still want to do experiments, to teach someone the little things you have to keep in mind when you’re on the bench that can really make a difference. I think I would like to keep both benchwork and grant writing active but less benchwork is my future goal. You don’t have enough time to do both, and you want to move to the next stage of your life. You want to reach the level when you can foresee everything, can see how the project goes and make a decision where to go. As a PI, I believe your knowledge should be broad and you must read more than you should.
SG: What would be your top tips for graduate students?
Firstly, I think a graduate student should make their priority their research. Your goal should be to make the best out of your research, to impress yourself and to be proud of your work. Secondly, make friends in grad school. Socialize with people, talk to people and by doing so you might get ideas about your own project. You are surrounded by scientists in grad school and there is always an opportunity to get new ideas that can lead to collaborations. Lastly, I think meetings are very important for graduate students. Conferences are passionate events where everyone likes to talk about their work and interesting people come to talk to you.
Finally, where do you see yourself in five years?
In five years, I would like to make myself more recognizable in the field. I would like to study what I am really passionate about and contribute important findings to that field.