I saw only four people during my 20-minute walk to lab on Saturday morning, but Dr. Yong-hui Jiang was already waiting for me in his office when I got there. 9 a.m., in his office, this is how Dr. Jiang starts his weekend every week.
Dr. Jiang went to one of the top medical schools in China straight from high school (which is still the educational system now in most Asian countries). However, unlike most of everyone else who “wanted to become a doctor since five”, he didn’t choose this path himself. At the time, China was under the Cultural Revolution, during which most of the intellectual population was harassed, attacked, and eventually put to death. As a result, Dr. Jiang’s parents saw doctor as a safe and stable occupation and urged him to go to medical school. However, Dr. Jiang soon found passion in what started off as an involuntary decision. “A lot of technologies were lacking at that time,” Dr. Jiang explained, “There was no whole genome sequencing. Indeed, the entire field of genetics was still nascent. So a lot of diseases which are now known to have a genetic basis remained undiagnosable. It was just those seemingly mysterious diseases that ignited my passion. I like solving mysteries, so I wanted to tackle those diseases.”
Opportunity came when he received a UNICEF fellowship for training in the United States. As a visiting pediatrician, Dr. Jiang worked closely with kids with Down Syndrome, which is one of the first identified genetically-related intellectual disabilities. “I became very interested in childhood intellectual disability disorders after my training. You know they are somehow genetically related, but you don’t know the exact cause or the pathophysiology. I was very determined to study those diseases, which meant I would need more training.” So he went on to the Baylor College of Medicine in Texas, where he both did his pediatric residency and got his PhD degree in Molecular and Human Genetics. That was when Dr. Jiang realized that he enjoyed not only interacting with patients clinically, but also working at the lab bench and coming up with ways to cure the diseases he saw at the bedside. To him, the two are mutually-reinforcing. “My young patients, especially their parents, they look into your eyes. They trust you and are counting on you to help them. This is what motivates me to go back in lab and try to figure out a cure for them. On the other hand, you also want to apply your research and see tangible results. I really enjoy both, and I think my job is very rewarding.”
Indeed, the Jiang lab sticks to a three-step agenda: for any disease, first, identify the genetic cause (“what”). Second, understand the pathophysiology (“how”). And third, develop a cure and bring it to the bedside. Current areas of research in the Jiang lab focus on the genetics of autism spectrum disorder and epigenetic disorders such as Angelman and Prader-Willis syndrome. Dr. Jiang was very excited when he talked about his research: “Studying the genetic cause of these childhood disorders, I really feel my dream more than twenty years ago coming true. Now I am really tackling those previously undiagnosable and ‘mysterious’ cases, thanks to the development of whole genome sequencing and other resources and technologies. This was unimaginable decades ago, but even decades later, this still really fascinates me.”
Now, as both a clinician and a researcher, Dr. Jiang himself spent approximately 25% of the time seeing patients in the hospital, and the rest in his office or in lab. “A life as both a clinician and a scientist can be tough and stressful sometimes,” Dr. Jiang admitted, “but as long as you really have the passion, you will deal with the pressure positively instead of letting failures stress you out. Passion for what you are doing also makes you very willing to work hard and devote yourself – otherwise, why do you think I’m here every Saturday morning?” This is also the piece of advice Dr. Jiang gives to all his students. Be a keen observer of the world around you and find your talent and passion inside it. Know what you really like and what you are really good at. How do you know if something is really your true passion then? “Well, you will know it when you find it.”