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Hui WANG: “Iron” Lady Will Shine




Junior Principal Investigator

Greater Bay Biomedical InnoCenter

“Go outside, never come back! Don’t call me or write to me. I don’t want to talk with you here. I want that other people talk about you.” 

--- Nuovo Cinema Paradiso 

Wang Hui is quite familiar with films. Her favorite film is Nuovo Cinema Paradiso, directed by Italian director Tornatore. The film describes the friendship between Toto, a young quick-witted boy, and Alfredo, the projectionist of the town. With the help from Alfredo, Toto leaves his hometown and becomes a prestigious director in Italy. “I am grateful to two important persons, one is Academician Rao Zihe, my doctoral supervisor, and the other is Professor Zheng Ning, my post-doctoral mentor.” 

In 2002, Wang Hui started studying for her doctorate and became one of Academician Rao Zihe’s students. “At that time, Prof. Rao guided us who knew little about scientific research as an elder, coaching us carefully and providing the best research environment and valuable opportunities for exchanges and practices. As a result, we started at a relatively high level as beginners.” During her doctoral program, she went to Tokyo University and UK for cooperative training and visiting. Afterwards, she joined Prof. Rao in Nankai University to assist him in lab initiation . Meanwhile, her serial scientific works were published in the journals including EMBO J., Nucleic Acids Res., J Mol Biol. These experiences expanded her horizons, urging her to pursue advanced training abroad. “Mr. Rao’s dedication and characters made me look forward to engaging in academia.” After getting her doctoral degree, she went to the United States. 

“Some birds are not meant to be caged, their feathers are just too bright.”

--- The Shawshank Redemption 

Some people would rather keep meeting challenges than be mediocre. In USA, Wang Hui’s life didn’t go as smoothly at the beginning as she expected: She got scooped in her first project. 

“I tend to be patient, focused, and persistent rather than rushing something out. Regardless of being inevitably dispirited, I am always optimistic about the future.” she expressed her decision to hang on to her mentor Zheng Ning, who supportively renewed her stay. “As an open-minded person, Prof. Zheng has absolute passion for science and positive attitudes for almost everything. He always delivers encouraging messages and fantastic ideas that help you bounce back from adversity, and gear up to move on.” Therefore, Wang Hui resumed her studies, facing with more challenging projects. In one of her studies regarding the working mechanism of a critical ubiquitin ligase for iron metabolism, she discovered that this ubiquitin ligase unexpectedly harbors an iron sulfur cluster which can function as a redox switch to control cellular iron metabolism.  In response to the changes of oxygen/redox levels in cells, the iron sulfur cluster switches between its reduced and oxidized states, determining the recruitment and degradation of iron regulatory protein. Isn’t it amazing that the difference of a single electron dictates the fate of a protein and further the fate of entire iron homeostasis? Those findings made her realize the intricate relationship between iron and oxygen in physiology as well as the indispensable role of iron as an essential element for all living organisms, which lays the foundations for her independent studies—probing the seemingly old field of iron with infinite interesting new possibilities.

Although “iron” is obviously out of the scope of his own research, Prof. Zheng still offered his supports unconditionally. He even went to the University of Utah in person to invite Dr. Leibold, the discoverer and verifier of iron regulatory protein, as the collaborator for the study. When the exquisite and reversible redox switch, with working mechanism verified by biochemical assays, eventually presented itself beautifully in the cryo-EM density map, both Wang Hui and Zheng Ning felt thrilled, their eyes shining with pride. “This is the true meaning of science.” Their findings were published in Mol Cell. and keenly previewed by Dr. Rouault, the head of the Metal Biology and Molecular Medicine Branch at NIH. 

“I am very grateful to Prof. Zheng. He gave me the opportunities to accomplish a research that couldn’t have been done elsewhere. After bouncing back from adversities and conquering all kinds of difficulties, I sincerely tasted the feeling of success and accomplishment, which is beyond any plain words. It is this feeling, together with the accompanied self-affirmation, that drives my decision of dedication to science and research as my life career.” She said: “Life is full of hardships. To be honest, this is not the first setback for me.”

“Life was like a box of chocolates, you never know what you’re going to get.”

--- Forrest Gump

She fell short for the admission score of her dreaming college, Tsinghua University, by two points during the national entrance examination. As an outstanding student, she felt depressed on the train to Sichuan. “I rejected the offer from the University of Science and Technology of China simply because the city Hefei is far away , however, I was heading for Chengdu, a city even further on the other side of the country.” She said with a bitter smile. 

Unexpectedly, stay in Sichuan opened a door for her to a new world. “There are so many interesting things out there worth pursuing!” She made her friends for life here, sharing with them the trips, movies, secrets, and endless chatting topics. When recalling this period of time, she was with emotions: “I kind of found a new self: learning to be independent, to be social, and to be appreciating the beauty of mother nature and routine life. Without such experience, I would neither have the courage to explore the world by myself nor have balanced mental power to tackle with situations. Anything happened to you deserves appreciation if you think it twice from another perspective.”

As to conducting scientific studies, Wang Hui said that: “Being highlighted is rare. The majority of doing research falls in a circle of “Attempt-Failure-Attempt again”. I’m prepared for the experimental and technical difficulties, but facing with new challenges. I am currently in the transition from a trainee to an independent PI. Besides experiments, I need to take control of everything in the lab, and sometimes to be multitasked. I have to maximize my potentials to fit in this position as soon as possible to ensure the initiation of my lab.”

“Everyone shines in their own way.”

In 2021, Wang Hui jointed the Greater Bay Biomedical Innocenter of Shenzhen Bay Laboratory with iron biology as her interest of research. “By using a combination of interdisciplinary approaches, I seek to understand the fundamental iron-involving regulatory mechanisms implicated in a variety of critical processes, such as iron metabolism, iron homeostasis, and ferroptosis, to uncover the iron-relevant pathways that are altered and misregulated in diseases, and to further explore the therapeutical designs to benefit human health based on the learned biological principles.” When it comes to the reason of joining this center, she said: “The job interview of the Greater Bay Biomedical Innocenter is the most pleasant one that I’ve ever had. Lots of my long-time thoughts go in line with those of senior scientists in this center. I do hope that I can grow together with this newly established center and make it a place ‘to enjoy the pleasures of pursuing and exploring scientific processes’, exactly like the welcome message sent by Academician Zhang Mingjie for our new PIs.” 

“My recent goal is to complete the lab establishment, to push forward research projects in plan, and to set up experimental platforms combining multiple disciplines. I hope that high-value scientific findings can be made in the future to contribute to the field of iron biology. Some of them can also be commercialized to fulfill their values and serve human health. For example, we can explore the ways to induce the ferroptosis in cancer cells, which in combination with existing cancer therapies can improve the treatment efficacy; besides, by taking use of the oxygen-sensing nature of iron, we can realize selective targeted protein degradation (TPD) to eliminate key pathogenic protein under specific conditions; to be bold and creative, we can de novo design a small protein with a redox sensitive iron-containing element as a switch to turn on/off a biological process in response to cellular oxygen levels, such as a drug carrier protein that purposely releasing drug in cancer cells under hypoxia.” 


As a child, Wang Hui once dreamed of being in the spotlight. In her thirties, her views change: “Everyone shines in their own way”, she wrote on her homepage. “Indeed, I hope that I can help my team members find their careers and directions, take fully use of their potentials, and establish an inclusive, diverse, and synergic team.” On top of that, she has a wish to inherit Prof. Zheng Ning’s spirits in science and education. After the research group is well-established, she may recruit some students and trainees who have ideas, potentials, and room for development but are temporarily less competitive for some reasons. She will provide them with an absolute, inclusive environment to fulfill their scientific ambitions. “If I have abilities one day, I will definitely provide such opportunities and platform to let all science lovers shine in their own way!”