Chao Jiang is a 2015-16 Stanford CEHG fellow and a postdoctoral scholar, advised by Mike Snyder in the Department of Genetics. He received his B.S. in Biological Science from Xiamen University in China and completed his Ph.D. in Genome, Cell, and Developmental Biology with Yves Brun at Indiana University in 2014, where he investigated the evolution of bacterial shape. His research focuses on evolution, microbiology, and human and environmental microbiomes. In his free time, he enjoys swimming, PC gaming, programming and traveling.
This content has been transcribed from an interview that took place on Stanford campus Tuesday, October 15, 2015 with CEHG’s Director of Programs, Cody Montana Sam and Communications Manager, Katie M. Kanagawa.
Can you tell us a bit about yourself?
I’m from China and I got my Ph.D. from Indiana University. I got started with genetics and microbiology, especially focusing on the evolution of different species.
Around the same time that I was finishing my graduate work, people were starting to really take on the microbiome; I thought that was a really good entry point for me to focus not just on one or several species, but on a community of species. The idea is to study a collection of individual species in a very complex community; for instance, we could study everybody here, sitting in the café, at the same time, rather than studying individuals one at a time.
Can you tell us a little more about a personalized microbiome signature?
For each individual person, the microbiome is, more or less, stable over time. But it can change very quickly over a short time, for example, when you travel and get diarrhea. If we were to sequence your microbiome while you are sick, it would look very different, but when you return home, it would restore to its usual dynamics. So over time, your microbiome seems to have a signature. However, if you travel a lot in countries with different customs and cultures, you might have a generally unsettled microbiome (laughs).
Would you please elaborate on your approach to studying the microbiome? What motivates you to pursue this line of inquiry?
There are some people studying the microbiome, like me, who come from more traditional genetics and molecular biology fields and there are also people from a computational background who started studying the microbiome because they like the informatics methods and they want to apply them to biological problems. I like to start with a biological problem first, and then try different methods (the microbiome being one of them) to approach it.
Over time, I realized that a thorough understanding of biological experiments and bioinformatics analyses is a much more efficient way to attack biological problems. You can gain far more insights than if you only do experiments or interpretational assays.
I think a universal field of molecular biology/informatics/genomics will be the future for this generation of biological scientists.
In my previous and current lab, people are starting to try to do both. But it’s not easy. I think I was the first person ever to want to minor in bioinformatics in my graduate school (laughs).
Did you have people you looked up to on the road to Stanford?
Oh, yes. Apart from my thesis advisor Yves Brun, the one person who had the biggest influence, during my Ph.D., was Professor Michael Lynch (in the Biology Department at Indiana University). He’s one of the big guys in the evolution and population genetics field. The way Mike teaches is to use evolution to link everything in biology together as a network. He connects everything together to understand the root of life and every aspect of biology, from the origin of life to medical science. This perspective was a huge eye opener for me and it’s why my interest will always partly be based in evolution. Before, I was doing pure genetics and molecular biology stuff. But I began asking the questions, why we are here and how do we become what we are? I applied Mike’s network approach to bacteria during graduate school and I use it now with the microbiome.
What was it like moving from China to Indiana?
I like Indiana a lot. China is crowded in the big cities. My town isn’t that big, but it still has 5 million people (laughs).
One thing I wanted to mention is that my dad was a visiting scholar at UIUC [the University of Illinois-Urbana Champaign] when I was in high school, so I actually studied in the States when I was 16 or 17 years old. I really like the way education is here. In China, knowledge is usually stuffed down your throat. I did well in China but I do much better here, because I am interested in scientific problems and want to explore them. As I was here during high school, I didn’t feel as much culture shock when I came back for my Ph.D.
How did you first become interested in biology and the sciences, when you were younger?
My story is probably not similar to many others. Both of my parents are electronic engineers, so I was about to become a computer programmer in high school. When I was 18, I tore my ACL in basketball really badly and the surgery protocol in China was not so good. Since I was familiar with stem cells, I wondered if it would be possible to cultivate a ligament in vitro, so we could use it for grafting materials. Of course, many people have those kinds of dreams, but that’s why, when it came to major selection (in college), I didn’t want to be a medical doctor. To me, MDs try to address the symptoms of a problem but not the root. In my mind, that’s the big difference between medical science research and clinical science.
So that’s why I went to biology in the first place. I now know that, after many years, people are pushing that stem cell front, but, in my college or even graduate school years, it would have been really hard to get an actual functional ligament from stem cells. But I think people are getting there; ligament tissue is going to be one of the first types of tissue that people can achieve in vitro.
What are your future plans?
I definitely plan to be university faculty someday.