Dr. Wei Wei joins ISB, eyes ‘transformative impacts on future health care’
Before joining ISB as assistant professor and as our newest faculty member this month, Dr. Wei Wei earned his Ph.D. from Caltech and was a faculty member at UCLA Medical School. Read on for a Q&A with Wei that delves into his research career to date, how research might change over the next decade, and his interests and hobbies when not focusing on science.
ISB: You are ISB’s newest faculty member. Welcome! What does this appointment mean to you? What attracted you to ISB?
Dr. Wei Wei: ISB is an ideal place for my career development. I am extremely excited to have the fortune to work in such an open, collaborative, supportive and interdisciplinary environment. Under the great vision and leadership of Drs. Lee Hood and Jim Heath, I look forward to leveraging the unique resources of ISB to perform groundbreaking research in single-cell medicine with the goal to cultivate new understandings in systems biomedicine and deliver transformative impacts on future health care.
ISB: You come to ISB from UCLA. What are you looking forward to in Seattle, and what will you miss about Southern California?
Wei: Prior to my move to Seattle, I lived in Southern California for more than 11 years, from San Diego to Pasadena to Westwood. I have experienced a small private institute as well as large public universities. Among them, Caltech is definitely a unique pearl. Its diminutive and delicate structure, its talented scholars with remarkable creativity and individuality, and its highly interactive/collaborative culture deeply impressed and enriched me in many aspects. My PhD life at Caltech is truly one of the most rewarding periods in my life so far. When I came to ISB after four years of faculty work at UCLA Medical School, I returned to the long-lost feelings of Caltech’s life – despite that the sun is more bashful in Seattle compared to Southern California. Given a high concentration of talented people working closely in a tightly packed but highly interactive and collaborative environment at ISB, the chance of an all-important serendipitous encounter over coffee will be dramatically increased.
ISB: Your areas of expertise include BioMEMS, molecular and cellular analysis, and systems biomedicine. What attracted you to these fields of study? What excites you about your fields of study?
Wei: One of my major research focuses is to give the most fundamental unit of life – the single cells – a systems-level quantification. I was trained as a physical scientist. In physical sciences, if you want to understand something, the first thing is to understand its fundamental unit. The second level is to understand the interactions among these fundamental units up to a systems level where a collective macroscopic behavior (such as a phase transition in physics) could happen. I have a long-standing belief that this principle is also applicable to biology.
On the other hand, I intrinsically prefer systems-level thinking to reductionist view. This is probably because the central philosophy of traditional Chinese medicine is a systems view of the human body (while it was not equipped with knowledge of biochemistry and molecular biology), and my family had been practicing traditional Chinese medicine for generations.
These two arms of thought came across and started to ignite when I first met my PhD advisor, Dr. Heath at Caltech, who showed me the beautiful results of single-cell proteomics measurements for predicting patient immunotherapy response. That was the moment that I decided to switch my research area from nanoelectronics to the more exciting (and in some aspects more painful) field of single-cell biology because I strongly believe it will be an innovative way, and also the right way, to do biology research in the 21st century. At that time, the tools for giving a single cell systems level quantification were still in their infancy. I started to work on various bioMEMS/microfluidics tools to handle single cells, to extract molecular information out of them, and to analyze them using systems-level approaches.
Both single-cell technology and cancer biomedicine are fast evolving fields with a lightning pace of discovery. Cancer is a complex disease that features dramatic cell-to-cell diversity. Such diversity leads to incomplete eradication, recurrence, and metastasis. Resolving the cell-to-cell diversity is the key for a complete eradication and improved patient response. Single-cell analytical approaches are born to discern such diversity. The things that excite me most are the discoveries from the single-cell level analysis that have transformed many traditional understandings while cultivating a lot more new understandings of this complex disease. They could eventually deliver clinical benefits to patients.
ISB: How do you think the research landscape might change in the next 10 years?
Wei: With the boom of single-cell, multi-omics approaches and the dramatically reduced cost of sequencing in the next 10 years, we should be able to give a complete molecular registry for every single cell in our body as well as a map of how different cells interact with one another to perform systems-level functions as tissues/organs. We could eventually construct a cellular-level atlas for defining human health and disease. Some primitive efforts are already ongoing in this direction. With the aid of advances in computational systems biology as well as artificial intelligence, more and more knowledge can be dug out from this big data mine. It could ultimately change the practice of biomedical research and transfer medicine from a trial-and-error approach to an informational science.
ISB: What do you do when you’re not in the lab?
Wei: I very much enjoy and dedicate most of my time to scientific research. In my spare time, I am immersed in the knowledge and advances in other fields through reading articles in academic journals, popular science magazines, books, and science news outlets. Specifically, I am especially interested in psychology and history. I am a loyal reader for some academic journals and magazines in those fields, including Trends in Cognitive Sciences, Journal of Applied Psychology, and History Today. In the meantime, I sometimes write short articles in some online popular science forums and communities to introduce my own research or other exciting progress in biomedicine to the general audience. It is an extremely enjoyable experience for me to get exposure to many different fields, while some of them are completely irrelevant to my field of study. I believe that learning across different fields provides an information advantage (and therefore an innovation advantage). Understanding deeper principles that connect those further helps me to apply the principles to my core specialty.
I am also an amateur photographer and a big fan of the Go game. I started playing Go in my childhood. I play Go online, and became an amateur 4 dan rank player a few years ago in eweiqi – one of the largest online Go game communities in China. After the two milestone matches where Google AlphaGo defeated world champion Go players in 2016 and 2017, I was deeply impressed by the lightning-fast development in the field of artificial intelligence in the last few years. This, in turn, prompted me to start learning recent advances in deep neural network and machine learning, and to think how to leverage these cutting-edge tools in the realm of precision medicine.
ISB: What is the last book you read?
Wei: The last book I read was a Chinese psychology book titled “It’s All Because of Nothing Personal” by Qituan Huang. It is an interesting introduction book of neuro-linguistic programming with many case studies. Prior to that, I read “What is Mathematics” by Richard Courant and Herbert Robbins, which is famous and one of my favorite math books. It is indeed a masterpiece with a sparkling collection of mathematical gems.
ISB: Any hidden skills or talents you want to share?
Wei: I am good at extracting the commonality from different disciplines and contemplating them in a common framework or integrating them to work together. Another hidden skill is something I strongly do not recommend: I can be awake and keep working on something (writing, coding, blueprinting, playing video games, etc.) for an uninterrupted period of more than 40 hours without eating and sleep. It is the very opposite of scientific wellness and I do not advocate it at all, although it did help me in some extreme situations in the past.