Dr. Beiyan Zhou: 2020 Women of Innovation® Finalist, Research Innovation & Leadership Category
“I am so excited to be a part of Covid-19 solutions, to be able to help the world!”
Dr. Beiyan Zhou is a first-generation immigrant from China. As a ninth-grader in her home country, she published her first paper while competing with an upperclassman. “I had a laboratory setting in my bedroom. I would walk by these peach flowers every morning and watch them bloom. I became curious and decided to dip the flower petals in vinegar and soap to see if the color changed. When it did, I thought maybe I could create something from plants that can tell me if a solution is acidic or basic”.
Twenty years ago, she decided to pursue a Ph.D. at Northwestern University and then move on to MIT for her post-doc.
Today she is a faculty member, researcher, and mentor at UConn. Beiyan leads a research group of young scientists dedicated to biomedical research. Her group discovered regulators of immune cell function and fine maps of complex immune cell actions in humans that could be essential for cancer immunotherapy and treatment of cardiovascular and diabetic diseases. She won the (2013) Junior Faculty Award from the American Diabetes Association, published many highly cited papers, and has received nine awards for her inventions.
Beiyan’s team also worked on a bioinformatics system to find mappings of macrophages in the human body called the MacSpectrum.
Macrophages (the first line of defense in protecting the host from infection) are immune system cells formed to combat invading pathogens or remove dead cells inside tissues, holding the ability to destroy target cells and moderate tissue regeneration.
Now of critical importance, identifying heterogeneity in macrophages is key to determining COVID-19 lethality. Could it be different in adults than in children, making adults easier targets for COVID-19? It is vital to understand why people with underlying conditions can have worse outcomes than others, such as patients with diabetes, heart disease, or autoimmune diseases.
A group of scientists from Europe reached out to Beiyan’s team at UConn to use MacSpectrum in an effort to understand how macrophage responds to Covid-19. Beiyan’s research may help the world understand Covid-19! “I am so excited to be a part of Covid-19 solutions, to be able to help the world!”
Currently, Beiyan’s team is investigating why obesity is the number one contributor to type 2 diabetes. Under the pressure of chronic obese conditions, our immune system behaves differently during encounters of viral infections. Many scientists report that these encounters will make symptoms – and therefore the prognosis – worse, but it is not understood why.
Beiyan’s study will lay a foundation for understanding behavior changes in immune cells under obesity stress. The goal is to awaken the power of immune cells to fight against invading viruses or bacteria. Beiyan’s team is responsible for discovering the first microRNA that can control macrophage polarized actions under obesity conditions. Ultimately, her work aims to reveal how immune cells contribute to a risk of diabetes, cardiovascular disease, breast cancer, prostate cancer, and other autoimmune diseases.
Her team will take this research in three different directions:
One, to understand the effect of obesity on immunity under chronic conditions including weakening responses to vaccine and infection.
Two, to understand why macrophages are designed to fight infections and why they become harmful even though they are supposed to be helpful.
Three, how the systemic capacity is altered by obesity, leading to increased cardiovascular event risks.
When Beiyan isn’t solving health issues, she loves swimming, tennis, and playing computer games. During this pandemic, Beiyan has been keeping herself and her daughter active through dancing and reading. In 2018 she read nearly 100 novels.
Out of all the books she has read, Beiyan would recommend “The Passions of the Mind” by Irving Stone, a biographical novel about Sigmund Freud. She hopes readers will find inspiration in the novel just as she did. She goes on to say, “When he came up with his theory about behavior, no one wanted to accept it, including his advisor and friends. Only one friend believed him, but he ended up with an infection during a medical procedure and died. Freud was very lonely, but never stopped believing in his own work and that is truly inspirational.”
Going forward, Beiyan wants to focus more on the postdoctoral fellows and students, including freshman and sophomore research students under her wing, and on advising and training more undergraduate students. Beiyan also wants to translate her research work to clinical practice to utilize her discoveries.
Beiyan’s curiosity was nurtured throughout her life by family, friends, and advisors, which is why she works to boost the inquisitiveness of her students. “I hope to nurture my students’ curiosity. I hope they have fun with it. When you finally figure something out, it’s exciting. No other feeling can compare. Curiosity is the source of all the fun in experimentation.” But, with great curiosity comes great responsibility, which is why Beiyan finds it important for future biologists to learn about data. “Bioinformatics has become a necessity. For biologists, I always say, even if you are not a master, at least learn about data, what it can do, and how you can translate it to advance your research.”
Advice for future scientists:
“For scientists, I say be persistent. If you have a strong interest in something, cultivate it, don’t let it go. Instead, foster that interest in achievement through persistence. Science is mostly about experiments and experiments fail. You have to stay determined and keep testing. We all suffer through failure. Sometimes you lose, but each time, if you can learn from it, then you have actually won! So be persistent and follow your interests.”
The second piece of advice Beiyan would give to future scientists is something her advisor told her when she sought guidance on becoming a professor.
“Be smart and work hard. Be nice to success”. She goes on to say, “Be smart—is to engage in learning and be critical to results; work hard—is an essential element to anyone who wants to be successful, no matter how smart you are, you need to focus and work on it; be nice—is also important for scientists in that we always want to be helpful to others, trainees, colleagues, and family & friends. Being helpful and supportive of others will pay off, just like karma.”
Advice for Life:
“At every point in your life, you will have the good and the bad. I would suggest to everyone to look at the good first. There will always be a good part and you will find the good if you focus on it. Find the good and it will give you the power to overcome the bad.”