As an associate professor in the Department of Molecular Medicine, Mia Huang, PhD, is investigating questions in the field known as glycobiology, the answers to which could have major implications for immunity, cancer and aging. Here, Mia discusses how people should view being a scientist, what we can learn from the natural world and the importance of enjoying the process.
Well, I always wanted to be a medical doctor growing up; at the time, my idea of a scientist was from the cartoon Dexter’s Laboratory. I grew up in the Philippines, but my family is traditional Chinese. My dad only has a second-grade education and my mom only finished high school. They placed a real importance on making money and so for them, being a scientist was not a viable career track. I moved to the U.S. halfway through college and when I first tried doing research in a lab, I immediately felt a connection to it. I was starting to realize that I liked the idea of manipulating things to find out how they worked. When I told my parents that I was going to pursue a PhD, they deterred me a lot. But I guess I was stubborn enough to follow through. I think the COVID-19 pandemic has showed them the value of scientific research.
My job was to take inspiration from natural biomolecules, understand how they tick and then direct them toward biomedical applications. For example, you have amphibians like frogs living in bacteria-infested water; why can they survive and thrive? It’s the same mystery for insects that live in Antarctica in sub-zero temperatures. What are the molecules inherent to them that allow them to survive under these conditions? Well, it turns out there are anti-microbial agents or anti-freeze agents. As a graduate student, I was distilling the chemical principles from these agents and applying them to synthetic molecules to see if we could create better uses for them.
Glycans are a diverse class of sugar molecules that are found on the inside and outside of our cells. They act as molecular signals that are responsible for processes like activating our immune system, controlling cell growth and transporting cellular cargo. We’re really interested in their role as receptors for growth signals, particularly in the development of cancer or in the generation of stem cells. We’re trying to understand how we can create better defined populations of stem cells that would be more effective in regenerative medicine. We believe the glycan molecules are a big part of that equation.
It has to be a calling for you. You don’t do it for the money or the fame, you do it because you like to experiment and you want to see the outcome of how things work in the world. To realize that curiosity, I think it’s so important for younger people to get that first taste of science by being in the lab. Otherwise there can be this romantic notion of what being a scientist is: like Isaac Newton waiting for the apple to fall from the tree and then getting inspired to make a discovery. In reality, it’s a rigorous process trying to prove something as true. I think I enjoy that process more than anything.