Under the Lens: Zhongjiao Jiang
Of the many intricate techniques used in neuroscience, electrophysiology has always fascinatedme. So much of what we know about the brain is built on the electrical signals that are created by neurons. By we, of course, I mean those of us talented and dedicated enough to master the art. Zhongjiao Jiang is one of these masters. I’ve watched many of her research presentations and marvel at the quality of her recordings and the impressive sample sizes she generates. We sat down to talk about how she followed her calling to Chicago and how she deals with the daily frustrations of scientific research. This interview has been edited and condensed.
So you were in China, you were in a master’s program there. And then you did an internship here. How did you come to the Biological Sciences PhD program at UIC? How did you hear about Dr. Liang-wei Gong’s lab?
My boss in China recommended me here. They could tell that I love research. And I have relatively good English speaking and writing skills.
I came here between 2012 and 13. At the very beginning when I was really naive about these things, I saw you guys. Everybody here is so… although the scientific work is hard, I saw your passion. And you are independent. You say what you think. I thought, I want to be that kind of person.
Later when I went back to China to defend for my master’s degree. I thought of what kind of job I wanted. I even received two offers. I thought, I can make money out of these jobs. I can have a good lifestyle. I can have my family, friends, all kinds of happiness. And I might be a strange person, but I just didn’t feel my passion in it. I still wanted something from science. I didn’t want to give it up at that point, so I moved to the PhD program to decide if I’m really passionate about this science thing.
Also I wanted to take this 5 years (or 4 years or whatever it takes) to know more about myself. I used to be the “good girl” of the people around me, but I didn’t know me. So I wanted to take the time off from being other people’s daughter, friend, anything else.
Did you always like science growing up?
I am curious, and I love science. You can explore unknown things. I think everything should have a solution. I used to be very eager to be a doctor, to help people study disease.
What do you study now?
We are studying endocytosis, the vesicle recycling pathway.
How would you describe your research to someone who doesn’t know what that means?
I would say that we are studying communication between two neurons. How do they communicate, how do they get feedback? I pass on my message using an envelope. But I only have a set number of envelopes. If I mail them out, I have to get them back. I’m studying that “getting back” part.
Why do you think your research is interesting?
It’s basic science, but it is regarding something in your brain. There are a lot of brain disorders. It really matters to humans. So my research can be related to disease. I think ultimately it will be beneficial to people.
I know a lot about your technique, but could you explain it for people that don’t know what you do in lab?
I mainly do electrophysiology. This technique is very hard. But it’s very cool. It takes a lot of time, but it gives you data really fast if you master the technique. You study the cell’s electrical activity. We are working with neuroendocrine cells (from the adrenal gland), and neurons. And if we need to study some kind of ion channel expression, I sometimes use human embryonic kidney cells.
And your experiments are called patch clamp experiments. Can you explain what “patching” is?
I use a glass micropipette called a patch pipette as a recording electrode. Depending on the experiment’s purpose, the interior of the pipette will be filled with different solutions, and the pipette tip will be sealed onto the cell membrane. I record changes in biophysical properties of the cell such as ion channel activity.
What makes this technique so hard?
It takes a lot of practice. The first year here I spent every day more than 10 hours practicing. It took a whole year, and I still didn’t get it. The technique itself is hard because you have to control a lot of things. The most important thing you have to control is yourself. You have to be consistent and really concentrated every day.
How do you get in that mindset of being focused for such a long period of time day after day?
Yeah that’s what makes it hard. You have to do the experiment at least 6 to 8 hours to get side-by-side data. At the very beginning I didn’t get that. I felt - it’s too hard, how can I focus, I’m really tired. Even now I don’t get it every day. I have to really want the data! You have to ignore everything else. And I have to get rid of my emotions. I can’t do patches with emotions.
What does it feel like when you get that great data?
The first feeling I have is, yes I’m a normal person now! I can be confident now. I’m still learning. The farther I go, I feel that there are more things I need to understand.
What is your favorite thing about this program? What is that’s like keeping you here day after day?
This is hard to say. My work is really hard. I guess it’s because the working conditions and research environment is everything I need to be happy. I just love it. Problem solving and being independent.
The first day, [I thought] people here are really doing research, and I saw passion! This passion really attracts me. And it’s hard, but people are still passionate. People here are very supportive. They help you. They are really friendly and they are understanding. And I have my PI’s help.
Can you tell me a little about your experience coming from China to the US?
I was a brave girl. I went to the airport by myself, and my friend got me to the apartment. My previous PI in China came here to visit. She took good care of me. But after she left, I had to go for groceries. And I had to cook! I don’t know much about cooking. I had to maintain the house by myself. Deal with my landlord. And deal with experiments.
Did anything surprise you about Chicago?
The traffic! The only thing I remember coming here is the traffic. I didn’t know how to get on a bus. I saw the buses, I had change in my pocket, but I didn’t know how to get on it! It’s a small thing, but I had never traveled on a bus by myself.
What are your favorite things to do when you’re not in the lab?
The museums and the lake shore. And go shopping! And the gym. I love the gym. I love people running around, exercise. That’s the lifestyle I love about Chicago. People are living a very healthy lifestyle here.
What kind of exercise do you like to do?
I love swimming, running, or walking. Anything. Best thing is swimming. I love shopping. And I sometimes love to go to the cinema to watch a movie.
What kind of movies do you like?
I used to love horror movies. But since I have to work late sometimes I kind of gave up that hobby. And comedy. Like Big Bang Theory, things like that. It makes you happy. And you forgot about unhappy things, your anxiety, frustration.
What’s your favorite restaurant in Chicago?
I love all kinds of food as long as they are delicious. I can’t name a favorite restaurant!
What about favorite dish? We went to Chinatown and had a great meal. And I remember you saying that you just loved meat.
I love meat! I like fish, beef. I just love everything.
How did you get so good at speaking English? I’m trying to learn a new language, and I would love some advice.
Sometimes I feel it is hard to express myself to people. I started English in middle school. I always got 1st place when we were doing English examinations. I just love language. I love the sounds. The pronunciations. And if I love new words I make stories of them. I used to think I would be a novelist when I was small because I like to make stories with words.
Where did you grow up in China?
I grew up in the middle part of China, it’s a very special place. Henan. It has water but it also has a lot of land. Most of the landscape is flat and with water. Then I went to Guangzhou for my master’s.
And you’re going back to visit soon right?
Yeah I’m so excited about it.
When is the last time you were there?
Two years ago.
That’s a long time! What are you most excited to do when you get there?
The most exciting thing is to spend some time with my parents and grandparents. They love me a lot, and they didn’t want me to leave.
What are you thinking for the future after your PhD? 5 years from now?
I need to go to another lab to do around 2-3 years of postdoc training. As far as I can see I only have these two possibilities - one in China as a PI if it is a really attractive position for me. Or I go for another round of postdoc training. That’s for the work side. For personal stuff I would be really well prepared for a better work life balance (laughs).
Do you have any advice for other PhD students?
First ask yourself who you are, what kind of person you are, and what you want for these five years and from this PhD program. And then be happy with what you are doing. And be confident you are doing what you are really comfortable with. If you want something out of it you have to work hard. Everybody is different. Just be happy with yourself.
Zhongjiao passed her preliminary defense this Spring, and her lab was just awarded an NIH grant. Congratulations to Zhongjiao and the Gong lab members. We can’t wait to see pictures from Henan!