22 May, 2023
16 : 34
In mid-January, the winter in Shanghai was still chilly. Dr Angela Chow, a young female researcher, arrived at our interview location in a white down jacket, calm and composed. When she took off her mask, she revealed a gentle, unassuming face.
It's hard to believe that such a young woman has already made noteworthy scientific achievements. Last September, she published a paper, entitled "Human sensory neurons modulate melanocytes through secretion of RGMB" in the authoritative scientific journal Cell Reports. Her research revealed the important role of sensory neurons in pigmentation in human skin. This report will contribute to the development of drugs for the treatment of pigmentation disorders.
Prior to commencing her graduate studies at the University of Tokyo, Angela obtained her undergraduate degree in pharmacology from McGill University. Before that, she had spent 16 years studying at YCIS, where her extended family had a total of 12 children receive an education.
In research, Angela is a driven person. She can spend a whole day in the lab, repeatedly deducing experimental results, and discussing and devising new research directions and methods with her team members. In her personal life, she is self-consistent and values her freedom. She is grateful for her parents' laissez-faire education, which allowed her to pursue what she wanted to do. She feels fortunate to have met many like-minded friends during her growth journey, supporting each other for years.
As she slowly narrates her story of growth, we can clearly feel the vivacious, vibrant heart in Angela. She seems to be always pursuing the passion inside her, and happy for it.
Q: Can you talk to us about the research topic you published? What interesting things did you encounter during the research process? What did you gain from it?
A: My topic is in neuroscience, but I studied sensory neurons on the skin, focusing on the relationship between the skin's melanocytes and nerve cells.
Black pigment cells are the cells responsible for the various skin colors we have. As we venture outside, we often notice that exposure to bright light or UV rays causes our skin to darken, and it's usually over a large area.
However, it's intriguing that age spots and freckles, which are also caused by the production of black pigment, occur only in certain areas. This made me curious and amazed, and I wondered why there's no research on the cause and effect of this phenomenon.
We worked together with POLA to explore this mystery. Eventually, we discovered that black pigment cells have many similarities with sensory neurons. They both start to develop during the embryonic stage and are derived from the same cell. They also occupy similar positions in our skin. After extensive research, we concluded that sensory neurons can produce a protein called RGMB, which is responsible for stimulating black pigment cells to produce more black pigment.
Q: What are your thoughts after publishing the paper?
A: This research has been with me throughout my entire postgraduate studies and has witnessed my many transformations. Starting from struggling to use experimental equipment to becoming the lead author of a paper published in a prestigious journal, I feel that I have grown a lot and am very happy and proud. Over the five years, I had numerous sleepless nights due to new discoveries and faced many failures. It is precisely because of these experiences that I deeply appreciate how challenging success can be, which only makes me more determined to persist. I believe that when we approach something with great curiosity and passion, difficulties and challenges will make way for us.
Q: You and your two older brothers all studied at YCIS Shanghai. What was the reason for your family's choice?
A: During the early 1990s, when my parents were selecting a school for me and my two siblings, they were drawn to YCIS Shanghai, which had recently been established and originated from Hong Kong. They found it unique that it emphasized on Chinese language education, which aligned with their educational philosophy. As it turned out, the choice was right. YCIS’s education philosophy transcends textbooks and grades. It truly hopes that we can find things we love.
Q: How would you evaluate your life at YCIS? What is the most unforgettable experience for you?
A: During my time at YCIS, I made many friends who have had a lasting impact on me. Our small classes and shared multicultural backgrounds and experiences brought us together naturally, and this connection grew even stronger as we entered society where it can be difficult to find people with common interests. Even now, I still keep in touch with my classmates and make a point to catch up with them whenever I return to China.
I have a close friend who used to fly over to Canada every year to celebrate my birthday or stay with me for a few days. As we both study medicine, it is easy for us to understand each other's experiences.Despite having chosen different career paths, we have always encouraged and supported each other without imposing our own opinions.
Whenever I face difficulties in my studies or work, I call her, even if it's late at night, and she always listens carefully for hours.
Q: It is said that you are also very talented in art. Why did you ultimately choose biomedical science? Can you share some stories or turning points with us?
A: YCIS is a school that values arts education in addition to cultural knowledge. So, I have loved drawing since I was young, and there were many friends around me who were similar to me. Naturally, I continued to grow and improve my drawing skills in such an artistic atmosphere. Until Year 12, I was convinced that I would pursue art as my career, and even when I selected my IB courses, I initially chose art. However, two weeks after selecting my courses, I ultimately gave up art and chose chemistry.
Since I was little, I have loved rummaging through my family's medicine cabinet, curious about the uses of various medicines, and interested in human diseases. Starting in Lower Secondary, because science classes were so interesting and my teacher was very passionate, I gradually became interested in biology and chemistry. In the process of learning, I often exclaimed, "Oh, this thing hasn't been discovered yet," or "Ah, this substance was only discovered in the last few decades." These discoveries were very interesting to me, and the sense of the unknown was exciting. I became more and more interested in studying these two subjects.
I remember in science class, our teacher often played games with us, using group competitions to help us memorize the periodic table. Everyone in the class participated enthusiastically. Sometimes, we would also have quizzes, and each group could choose how many points they wanted to answer. The higher the points, the more difficult the questions, and the group with the highest total points in the end would win, with prizes including being exempted from homework for a day. I still remember the feeling of achievement when our group won.
In fact, one reason I gave up art and pursued medicine was that both of my older brothers studied humanities, and I had a bit of a rebellious spirit. If they were studying humanities, I wanted to do something different. As it turns out, my decision was correct, and I have never regretted it. I like to choose what I do, and every time I discover something new or succeed in an experiment, I feel a great sense of achievement. I think as long as you can find a sense of achievement in your own field, everything is worth it.
Q: Why did you choose to pursue a master's and PhD and continue doing research in Japan?
A: Studying in Japan was actually a fortunate coincidence for me. I was traveling in Japan and really enjoyed the city, especially the food (laughs). And since I happened to come across a good opportunity at the time, I decided to give it a try. Initially, I only planned to study for a master's degree for two years since it was a new country, new culture, and new language, but as time passed, I realized that I really enjoyed doing research. And when I applied for a doctoral scholarship, I found a topic that I was interested in and eventually published a paper on it. So, I decided to continue studying and living in Tokyo.
Although the country is important, I believe that it's more important to consider your own situation. Before I came to Tokyo, I had been living in Canada for many years, and I wanted a change of environment and to be closer to my parents. Fortunately, I was lucky to have an excellent supervisor and an interesting research topic, so I have been very happy and content during my time in Japan.
Q: Can you give some advice for students who want to study in Japan in the future?
A: I know that many people may be afraid to go to a place because of the language barrier, but I believe that every place has a programme that suits you. And many non-English speaking countries, including Japan, offer English-taught programmes, so you can feel free to try. During the master's and doctoral stages, you will basically follow your supervisor, and if he or she is good at English, there will be less pressure on academics. However, learning a new language itself is a challenge, which I find quite interesting. So while you're young, you can learn more.
Q: Do you consider yourself a self-motivated person?
A: Actually, I'm quite easily influenced by the environment. My parents basically let me do whatever I wanted, but when I was at YCIS, I was surrounded by people who were very determined, hardworking, and self-aware, so I couldn't help but be influenced by them. When you see everyone working hard, you will think, "Why don't I work hard too?" Although some people may think that international schools are very relaxed, it's not true. There are many very hardworking people in our class, and they have achieved a lot.
Q: What is your current project about?
A: My current project involves investigating the reward system and motivation of the brain by connecting brain organoids from different regions. Our brain is composed of complex neural circuits that are essential for its functions. To study these circuits, our lab generates brain organoids using stem cells, which resemble the brain's structure outside the body. These organoids can be connected to create neural circuits that mimic the communication between neurons in the brain. This allows us to gain a better understanding of the brain's functionality and diseases.
My colleagues in the lab have different research fields, some are more engineering-oriented, some are more AI-oriented, and I am more biology-oriented. However, we often discuss how to better use and research this "brain" and do experiments together.
Q: What are your plans for the future?
A: Although I cannot say for sure, I will probably continue to explore in scientific research. So far, I have been on this path for 5-6 years and have published papers, so I hope to see more new discoveries and interesting results. And I am a person who loves freedom very much. If I go to work in a company, I believe there will be many restrictions and I will lose some scientific freedom.
Q: YCIS Shanghai will soon celebrate its 30th anniversary. Do you have any words for your fellow students?
A: I think while studying, you should take more chances and try new things. Even if you don't succeed in the end, you won't regret being yourself at that time.
Also, I hope that my fellow students can make more friends and go out more because these friendships can last a lifetime. My best friends now are all the friends I made during my studies, and that was the most innocent time.
For students who want to pursue biomedical or science majors in the future, I suggest that you determine the subjects you want to study before the IB stage, as this will make your future path relatively easier. I also recommend that you do scientific research, it may be tiring, but it is also happy. As long as you are doing what you are interested in, you will be happy.