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Chen Xuemei: A female scientist who blossoms out of interest

Peking University, Mar. 27, 2014: There are ten Chinese scientists who have been elected Member of National Academy of Sciences U.S. with higher education background in Mainland China, according to preliminary estimates. Only three of these ten are women. Professor Chen Xuemei, an outstanding PKU alumna, is one of them.

Chen Xuemei graduated in 1988 from Department of Biology, the predecessor of School of Life Sciences today. She went on to study overseas and gained her Ph.D. in plant molecular genetics and biochemistry at Cornell University. She is now a scientist and leading investigator in her eponymous lab at University of California, Riverside. She has two major foci: floral stem cells and microRNAs.

Chen Xuemei was elected Member of National Academy of sciences in 2013. In early March she was invited back to PKU and delivered a speech titled “Plant microRNAs:Biogenesis, turnover, and modes of action.”

Interest is the Guide to Success

Chen Xuemei was born in Harbin, a northern city in Heilongjiang Province. She showed interest in biology since high school and was the class representative of biology. “At that time, my father always took me to play in the fields and I felt excited seeing all kinds of plants. But I did not like doing experiments on animals such as dissecting larvae of fruit fly. I figured that I favored botany more.” Chen recalled. In 1984, she applied for biology major at PKU and was admitted to study plant physiology and biochemistry as she hoped. Chen said she did not think much about what to do after graduation and just kept learning out of her passion for plants.

When Chen graduated in 1988, she participated in CUSBEA Program (China-United States Biochemistry Examination and Application, launched by Professor Wu Rui) and got scholarship to major in biochemistry at Cornell University. It was a smooth choice to become a scientist for her because she enjoyed what she studied. She feels that today’s students have too much going on on their minds that they fail to give proper attention to their academic.

Chen said choosing and succeeding in the field of microRNAs and floral organ development was out of serendipity. “When we were doing research on the development of flowers, we wanted to find the controlling gene in this process. We found a gene called Hen1 and its phenotype after mutation was similar to that of another gene called Dicer. Dicer produces microRNAs in animals (nematode), so we hypothesized that Hen1 could produce microRNAs as well.” Chen’s team confirmed the theory through experiments and became one of the first teams to be able to extract microRNAs from plants. They continued to investigate in this field and made major achievements over the past few decades. “Before that, we never did any studies that were related to RNA.” She said.

Although it seemed accidental, Chen believed that the interest was the key, which spurred her to find the answers. “It was a long time ago in the 1900’s. At that time it was not an easy task to locate a mutant gene. Never thought about publishing a paper; never thought about becoming famous. I just wanted to know which genes led to the mutant. When getting very close to locating that gene, we were unable to sleep.”

Chen advised students not to limit their knowledge inside their own field because learning about other research areas can often lead to inspiration. Back then, her research institution also covered fields besides plants and she would go to all those lectures. “The finding that gene Dicer produces microRNAs inside nematodes was fresh at that time. Learning about that finding was what gave us the inspiration to look for microRNAs in plants in the first place.”

Sticking to the Interest is the Key to Success

Interest led Chen Xuemei into the world of plants, but the road to success was not always smooth. According to Chen, during her Ph.D. studies, she had a key technical problem in transforming the chloroplast of the Chlamydomonas that bothered her for almost two years. She was caught in a dilemma: to stick to the original plan or change the research topic? “It was possible to change my topic, but I was very interested in both the content and the design of the research. I would very much like to know the result of chloroplast transformation.” So Chen persisted. She managed to pull it off by consulting other labs and using other methods, and eventually it was a success.

Through the above example, Chen emphasized once more that it is crucial to do what you like. “You had better not consider publishing papers and becoming famous when choosing your research topics. If you are passionate about one thing, you will be dying to know the ins and outs of it and you will do whatever you can to find the answers you are looking for. Surely you may get caught up in unexpected adversities, so whether you can hold on to your interest or not is the key.”

When asked what would happen if she still failed to come up solutions after that two years, Chen explained that in U.S. mentors would usually give them two or three topics. “Since it takes a long period to finish a biology experiment, you can arrange the two or three different experiments in a way that you will be occupied the whole time.” As for career planning, Chen also suggested finding one’s interest was the top priority.

Advice on Life Science Research in China

As a distinguished female scientist, Professor Chen believes women also have the freedom to pursue their dreams, in spite of traditional Chinese culture. “For some people, a successful career is more important; for others, having happiness in life is more important. Finding a balance between family and career is really hard, especially for females. Therefore, having the support of the husband and family members is extremely important for females who are dedicated to careers.” Chen said maybe that was the reason why currently over 40% of the postgraduate students in School of Life Sciences, PKU are women but only about 20% of the school’s principal investigators (PI) are women.

“I think Peking University and Tsinghua University should set good examples to offer females a more equal environment. For example, during lectures, speakers can encourage female students to ask questions more since generally speaking, girls are more discreet and afraid of making mistakes.” Chen proposed. She also referred to her own experience to call for more attention to women’s special needs on occasions such as job interviews. “It was three weeks after my first child was born. I was asked to go to a college for a second-round interview. However, the college didn’t take my need to breast-feed her baby into consideration and half-hour interviews took place one after another. So now whenever I interview a female candidate for post-doctoral or faculty positions, I will consider their special needs so as to make arrangements accordingly.

Chen felt a bit surprised and worried seeing the “huge” scale of some of the labs in China. “The energy of an individual is limited. So how can a mentor give proper guidance to each student if the lab has 30 or 40 people? My lab has 15 people and I already feel overwhelmed sometimes.” She told the audience that in U.S. the scale of a lab is moderate and mentors would give direct guidance to post doctors and Ph.D. students. She said she was very lucky when she studied in Cornell University because she was the first Ph.D. student of her mentor. She got considerable amount of specific guidance from her mentor and thus learned a lot and grew very quickly. Now she welcomes her students to go discuss with her any time during the day. Therefore, Chen advised the Chinese students to give more consideration to small-scale labs when starting doing research so as to get more guidance from the mentor and improve faster.

Chen is very optimistic about the development of life sciences in China. In China, some labs have even better equipment than labs abroad, and Chinese scientists are playing more and more important roles with a surge in both the quantity and quality of scientific papers. Today School of Life Sciences has a lot of potential with many capable young researchers on board but there is still room left to be desired. She encouraged more original life science researches to be carried out in China, and she said she was confident about it.

Extended Reading

Chen Xuemei’s biography

The Chen Lab

Written by: Cheng Zui and Li Ruiqi
Edited by: Chen Long
Source: PKU News (Chinese)