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A discovery 30 years in the making

June 20, 2022

Dr. Mei Zhen

When she was five years old, Dr. Mei Zhen told her father she wanted to be Marie Curie when she grew up.

Curie, the trailblazing chemist and physicist, emigrated to Paris from Poland in 1891, facing roadblock after roadblock in a male-dominated field long before the term even existed. She went on to become the first woman to win the Nobel prize and the only to do so twice, inspiring Dr. Zhen to apply herself and work hard to overcome obstacles.

That's exactly what she did. Last year, a team led by Dr. Zhen at Sinai Health used a tiny model to accomplish a big breakthrough in neuroscience.

Using advanced imaging developed by Dr. Zhen and her collaborators to peer inside the cells of a tiny worm-like animal model called Caenorhabditis elegans (C. elegans), Dr. Zhen’s team was able to track how an animal’s brain changes throughout its lifetime. By looking at the brain as a whole rather than as individual structures and processes, this approach sheds new light on how human brains develop.

The road to C. elegans

Dr. Zhen was first introduced to the C. elegans model at a conference while working on her PhD in biochemistry at the University of British Columbia. Instantly fascinated, she made the decision right then and there. “I said, this is exactly what I want to do for my postdoctoral work.”

The pursuit of mapping the C. elegans brain brought Dr. Zhen to UC Santa Cruz, where she credits having an amazing mentor for her success. But the science wasn’t perfect. They were looking at processes in smaller parts of the brain and used those findings to make assumptions about the rest of the brain - similar to how we might make statistical inferences based on small sample sizes.

“It posed a bigger question,” Dr. Zhen explains. “If we want to get the big picture we cannot just study one gene at a time, one neuron at a time, or one connection at a time. We must check every single connection and every single neuron.”

A new breakthrough

The only problem was that the technology simply didn’t exist to do so. Dr. Zhen began collaborating with a team at Harvard to gradually develop electron microscopy, which is what her team uses today to automate processes that allow them to analyze the entire brain as it develops. “When the machines became available, this small group of people who were talking about this work for so many years could now suddenly say, let’s just do it, let's try it on a real sample. And we officially started testing our first sample in 2010."

Keeping the momentum

So what keeps someone like Dr. Zhen going through all that hard work over the years?

“Well there are many things,” she says. “I get up every morning and I can’t wait to start working. I do it not just for myself, but to contribute knowledge and resources that will benefit the entire research community. This work will lay down some fundamental understandings about how we understand life itself."

Her team also inspires her to keep pushing the envelope.

“I’ve found myself in the right place, at the right time, and with the right group of people to contribute as much as I can in my lifetime. I feel privileged and lucky.”

When she isn’t at work, Dr. Zhen still loves to read - something that has not changed since her Marie Curie days. “If I'm not doing natural, scientific writing or reading, I'm spending my time reading literature, hiking and dancing.”


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