Coast to coast: Innovation Award winner, Dr Lan Wang

8 February 2024

Dr Lan Wang, currently assistant professor at the School of Life Science, Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, won a prestigious Croucher Innovation Award in 2023.

Croucher News caught up with her recently to find out about her research and about her journey in science.

Dr Wang has travelled a long way in her career so far, geographically as well as professionally. Starting out as a chemist in Beijing as Tsinghua, she did her PhD at Harvard, then her postdoctoral research at University of California at San Francisco (UCSF), before heading back to China, where she is currently based in Hong Kong at UST.

Her initial journey to the US was motivated by the fact that the US was ”one of the centres of science in the world. I really enjoyed the science and the life I had at Harvard. But after five years, I was ready for a switch of mindset. So I made the move to the West Coast, to UCSF, for my postdoctoral research. The culture there was more relaxed—for example, birthday cake would appear on the day of any staff member’s birthday, which didn’t happen in Harvard—and I also had more opportunities to work with different technologies to carry out my research,” Wang told us. “Then came a chance to join UST when I was looking for my next position, and their facilities and the fact that I knew some of the researchers already there persuaded me to come here,” she added.

Initially a chemist by training, Wang has also moved a long way in terms of her discipline, as her research is now within the realm of structural biology.

“I majored in chemistry because I was good at chemistry in high school. I had a really passionate chemistry teacher who really encouraged me to study chemistry. I didn’t think too much about what I would do in the future as a chemist. I just picked my strongest subject, chemistry, where I was trained to look at matter at the molecular level. As my career progressed, I began to feel I could have more impact in biology, though I still feel that my focus on the molecular level is very useful.”

Another big shift that has occurred for Wang has been in technology. “When I was doing structural biology at Harvard, the basic technology I used was crystallography. This was great at giving high-resolution images of proteins, but they were very difficult and time-consuming to produce. At that time, cryo-electron microscopy (Cryo-EM) was not useful for giving us high-resolution images. But all that changed in the last 10 years, and now it’s become a widely used and powerful tool for structural biology. I’m fortunate that at UST we have a full suite of these microscopes, which I can access when I need them. In the US, I’d probably find it harder to get time with the machines, where there are so many scientists wanting to use them.”

Her current research addresses the quality control pathways that regulate protein homeostasis on the mitochondria’s membranes and the maintenance of the mitochondrial genome. We asked what issues she had faced so far.

“Within a cell, there are other membrane-bound, smaller compartments. Mitochondria is one of them. The membranes are made of lipids, which are insoluble. My protein is embedded in these membranes,” she explained.

“So, if you want to produce a large quantity of this protein for analysis, you’re limited by the membrane area in the cell. That’s different from a completely soluble protein that’s just floating around in the cell, as this protein only exists on the 2D membrane. There just aren’t that many of them.”

“Another issue is that, while the membrane itself is not water-soluble, some of these proteins have two compartments, one of which is water-soluble. We want to study the full-length protein that has two distinct properties. So the question is, How do you create an artificial environment where both sides of this protein are happy?”

Fortunately, Wang says she has found a good workaround to these problems.

We asked Wang about the impact of her Croucher Innovation Award. “I guess it gives me a few things. One, obviously, is the funding; this is a large amount of funding, and it will support me for five years. So it provides financial stability for a long period of time. Secondly, the Croucher Award gives me a lot of confidence to pursue my research because it’s a very prestigious award. Looking at the previous awardees and how they’ve been successful, I feel that being selected for the same award is a confidence booster for someone who’s just started out their career like me. Thirdly, and this I didn’t expect, the interview itself was actually a very helpful conversation. I explained my research to them, and they gave me a lot of useful feedback.”

Wang hopes that her research will start to show results within two to three years. “I have learnt the need for patience in doing this kind of science,” she commented. In the meantime, she’s looking forward to further refining her thinking and focus. “I’m learning a lot from conversations with other scientists at UST,” she said. “And I’m looking forward to when we have the structure complete so that we can move on to the analysis of it. That’s the really interesting bit!” 

To view Dr Lan Wang's Croucher profile click here.