The Audacity to Imagine and Create

In the world of non-neuronal cell contribution to pain, there is one name that does not escape the mind: Dr. Ru-Rong Ji. Currently chief of pain research within Duke Anesthesiology, Dr. Ji’s humble roots extend back to China, where he went to Nanjing University for undergraduate studies in the biology department and studied human physiology. Afterwards, he found himself at the Shanghai Institute of Physiology for graduate studies and earned a Ph.D. in neuroscience. Further in his academic journey, he studied neurobiology at the Karolinska Institute, the Royal Institute of Medicine in Sweden. It was after this when he first came to the US, initially at Johns Hopkins Medical School. He then spent his next 14 years at Harvard and the Massachusetts General Hospital, where he went from an instructor to assistant professor to associate professor and received his first NIH independent grant before coming to Duke. Upon arrival to Duke for the first time, what first stuck out to him as special and necessary in science was the environment–one that was collaborative and supportive.

Throughout this extensive scientific background, his goals have mostly remained the same: to understand the mechanisms by which pain operates and create translational potential to help patients dealing with chronic pain. However, over time, his interests have shifted from the role of neural circuits to non-neuronal cells in pain, and now he is one of the leading experts in the non-neuronal cell contribution to pain.

Biology, however, was not always his calling. In high school, Dr. Ji first gravitated towards math or physics since biology at that time was not so popular. Before his year, biology was not even taught in high school. However, he had an amazing teacher that was able to open him up to the wonders of the world of biology. From then, his interest snowballed and led to an entire career in neurobiology. Dr. Ji has since very much enjoyed science because it is a creative and innovative craft, with every project leading to a new journey. Through the seminars and talks he has given all over the world, he has very much enjoyed communicating with other scientists to spark new ideas in each other and to eliminate any kind of boundaries science might have. One of the most rewarding aspects of his career he thinks is mentoring students and fostering in them a love for pain research and science itself.

In recollecting what first got him into pain research, Dr. Ji remembers being very fascinated with how acupuncture was able to produce pain relieving effects. He was interested in how it happened and what neural pathways were activated by acupuncture. When he first started as a research scientist, the focus of pain research was on how neurons themselves contributed to pain. Over the years, Dr. Ji and others have discovered that non-neuronal cells such as microglia or astrocytes release mediating molecules that regulate pain, elucidating the interaction between the pain system and the immune system.
When asked what he hopes will happen in the field of pain research, he expressed the need for more effective and personalized therapeutics for pain relief. Currently, every drug and medicine has its own limitations: there is no one magical treatment. However, he’s optimistic that his research can increase our knowledge base of the mechanisms of pain, ultimately to increase our options of treatment and address a wider array of diseases.

Though widely recognized today, Dr. Ji has personally experienced the difficulty in taking unconventional routes, often away from what the public deems to be the most exciting or popular topics of science. But he believes that even if what you are doing is not the biggest, most showy story, you must not let go of your personal belief of what will make an impact in the future. Communication with others is important but you should always maintain your independent thinking. For young scientists today, his biggest advice is to be creative, stay open-minded, and remain persistent and patient. He believes that successful science doesn’t require raw intelligence. With enough persistence and focus on specific goals, you can eventually be recognized as a leader in whatever field you pursue. The world might be very different in the next 10 to 15 years with the rapid progress and innovation in medicine, and he is very optimistic that the young generation will pioneer this progress.

With all that, I am immensely grateful for the excellent mentorship I have received in the Ji Lab from mentors such as Dr. Ru-Rong Ji and Dr. Chris Donnelly and the opportunity to be a part of this exciting, ongoing journey.

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