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Brains Behind the Institute

Xinnan Wang

Associate professor of neurosurgery

I still remember seeing a tomato skin cell for the first time as a high school student.

We used basic microscopes, so many of my classmates couldn't see the cell’s structure, but under my lens it looked like the image in my textbook: the cell wall, the nucleus, everything. It fascinated me. Working with numbers in subjects like physics felt a little boring compared to exploring the tomato cells and learning how cells communicate and make proteins.

I followed this fascination with biology into medical school, where I earned a master’s degree in genetics and a medical degree in clinical medicine. I realized that my passion lay in fundamental research, where you’re always asking questions, forming hypotheses, then doing experiments to test them. And I wanted my experiments to help clinicians answer more questions around patients’ health.

As a PhD student, I became interested in how organelles, cell components that have specialized functions, move in neurons. Their movement is critical to the survival of neurons, and I wanted to understand why and how the process was disrupted in neurodegenerative diseases such as Parkinson’s disease. My advisor and I set up an experiment that was very rare at the time: a live imaging system for fruit flies, showing organelles moving inside neurons in real time. We didn’t think it was going to work because there was no protocol and no precedent. But it did. The success of this experiment led to my focus as a postdoctoral researcher on mitochondria transport, which my supervisor and I helped shape as a new field.

Now my lab at Stanford explores the mechanisms regulating how mitochondria move across neurons, and how these mechanisms are impaired in neurodegenerative diseases. As humans live longer lives, more people will get these conditions, and targets for treatments are desperately needed. My lab has found a new target, and is working on compounds that can focus on the target and offer a cure.

As a scientist, keeping a hands-on connection with the lab is important. My trainees now get to experience the thrill of discovering experimental data. It’s a different kind of excitement for me, because I’m not experiencing their moment of seeing things for the first time. But experiencing different phases of a career in science is important. And when I have a chance, I’d like to start doing some experiments again.

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