Collaboration Defines iHuman's Research

ON2019-02-25TAG: ShanghaiTech UniversityCATEGORY: Features

As iHuman and SIAIS faculty and students stood in front of international and domestic media in the Ren Building auditorium for a press conference in late January, they spoke proudly of the hard work that had gone into their research, which resulted in the recent publishing of two groundbreaking research studies in the same issue of the prestigious Cell journal. What was also apparent at the press conference was the deep culture of collaboration and support that is developing in the institutes. 

During the media question and answer session, iHuman Institute Founding Director Ray Stevens was asked a question on the topic of hard projects like those highlighted.   “All the simple problems that a single person could address have largely been addressed. The complicated problems in science today are the ones that are between the fields- chemistry, biology, physics, medicine, the arts-so this period is going to be referred to as the convergent or integrative period of science. Integrating different types of science and data requires teamwork. Scientists need to be trained not just in one discipline but how to integrate different disciplines. This era of science is about integration and teamwork is becoming more and more important,” Stevens said. 

It’s not all talk. From the projects iHuman is taking on to the culture they’re building in the institute, teamwork and collaboration play a crucial role. In an interview, Stevens said that Shanghai, just like Boston, San Francisco/Silicon Valley, Cambridge UK and other cities where science and technology are flourishing, encourages this kind of collaborative approach to science.

The project that iHuman has taken on related to a molecular and dynamic model of the human body to understand disease and create new therapeutics is one that depends on this type of collaborative approach. Stevens explained, “Lots of people can now image molecular data with technologies that have been developed globally. We can image what cells look like in the labs and hospitals. We can image what our brain looks like routinely by PET and MRI. But one of the biggest scientific challenges is how to connect the different scales, the molecular scale, the cellular scale and the organ scale of the human body.” The iHuman team’s big goal, he said, “is to be able to do whole body imaging at atomic resolution to detect disease before it really starts having an impact on the body. That’s going to have a huge impact on not just medicine in China, but also medicine all over the world.”

This is a local initiative at ShanghaiTech connecting all the schools – SIST, SLST, SPST - and a global project, with regular meetings in Los Angeles, Moscow and Beijing. Stevens said, “iHuman's been very successful over the past two or three years at imaging molecules and imaging cells, and we have several Nature and Cell papers on this. But now is the time to integrate it, so our goal for the future comes back to this integration. Within five years, we will make a very significant advancement in this plan. Our goal for the whole-body atomic resolution scanners is that within ten years we’ll be working with local companies like United Imaging to accomplish routine and regular whole body imaging on an annual basis and at an affordable cost.”

iHuman Executive Director Liu Zhijie (James) said that because the project is a mammoth one, “it involves people working in different fields. But they have to keep things in mind, that you are a small piece of the whole thing.” 

When bringing in new people, Stevens added, they think about how the candidate may fit in with the team.  “In our recruitment process, our criteria is for a highly collaborative scientist that wants to work on something like this. Anybody that we make an offer to, they need to be able to collaborate with at least two to three other laboratories within our iHuman institute and across ShanghaiTech University.  For example, the Xu Fei Laboratory at iHuman is doing crystallography and collaborates with four other laboratories, one on making chemical probes, for imaging, one on doing super resolution imaging, and then we work closely with computational lab,” he explained.  “They have a common goal, but we also stress independence to promote faculty and student careers. People pick their own projects, but they generally tend to find projects where, one plus one equals more than three, and I think this is also incredibly healthy for the students, and part of their education. Learning to collaborate is something that you don’t necessarily learn as an undergraduate or graduate student, and learning to work with others is an important skill. It's becoming more and more important in society today.”

Building a culture that encourages collaboration and teamwork has been important to Stevens and Liu. “Every successful place has a strong culture,” said Liu in an interview in his office, referring to the universities and institutes he has worked before. “But here, we take it as one of our jobs to build the iHuman culture. So, that's part of our job. We emphasize, ‘We are big family’ and that we are all family members. We're supposed to help each other.”

ShanghaiTech PhD student Xu Mengyang, head of iHuman’s newly established Student Leadership Board, highlighted this atmosphere in describing what has made his experience at ShanghaiTech unique. “There’s a culture here that is different from my undergraduate experience or anywhere else I have heard of,” he said. When asked to describe it, he replied simply, “You have the feeling of equality, that on every level, whether a senior professor or a new student, everyone has a right to talk as equals with one another.”

It’s also noticeable in the amount of global exchange opportunities available through iHuman’s work. In November, the institute hosted the International Conference on the Crystallization of Biological Macromolecules and along with SIAIS, hosted a Symposium on Probing Protein Structures with Bio-MS and Complementary Technologies. Both meetings gave students access to international experts who lectured and taught hands-on workshops during the conferences. 

Liu said that feeling of equality is an essential part of the iHuman culture that he and Stevens are working hard to create. They also take it as their mission to inspire their students both through interpersonal interactions and through the physical environment they are building in the institute. The halls are decorated with large scientific research posters and art murals that bring the research out of the lab and into the public sphere.

As many of the senior faculty and PIs have worked and trained in the US, they’ve brought back this culture with them and incubated the productive elements at ShanghaiTech, Liu said. “We very much emphasize education,” he said. “To nurture the young generation, not only graduate students, but also the young PIs. Ray, Kurt Würthrich and I, as senior people in this institute, our job is not just pushing the science, it's also to nurture the next generation. Each individual in science can accomplish something. But as you nurture and educate maybe 10 people, and help make them all become successful, it has ten times the impact.”