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Director Jun Wang sharing thoughts on the 40th anniversary of Cell: Driving ‘Omics’
Publish Date: 2014-05-04

To celebrate its 40th anniversary, Cell invited 40 scientists from around the world and working in diverse biological fields—all under the age of 40—to talk about science, their personal philosophies, the joys and challenges of research, and their lives away from the bench. Jun Wang, Director of BGI, is on the list of 40. Let’s hear from him on being a scientist.

Jun Wang

Driving ‘Omics’

1. What are the questions that inspire your lab?

The key question is how genome technology could benefit the society.  We want to get the whole picture of diseases from the multiomics level, including genomics, transcriptomics, epigenomics, metabolomics, bioinformatics, and metagenomics. We are building the first million genomes database. Based on that, we are thinking of how we could contribute scientifically to rebuild the healthcare system and drive the transformation to 4P medicine, more predictive, personalized, preemptive, and participatory. 

Apart from human health, how we can use genomics to develop improved crops, with higher nutritional value and that can better withstand climate changes, pests, and disease? With omics data, can we achieve digitalized agriculture to generate breeding programs on computer?  

2. Who are the scientists, living or dead, that you admire? If you could, who would you work with?

Charles Darwin, for his courage and spirit. When On the Origin of Species was published, his natural selection theory aroused many criticisms. But he faced the controversy and stood his ground, devoted to extensive research and finally reshaped people’s understanding of evolution. He is one of the most influential scientists in history. 

Robin Warren and Barry Marshall, the Nobel Laureates and researchers who are credited with the remarkable and pioneering discovery of "the bacterium Helicobacter pylori and its role in gastritis and peptic ulcer disease." Though their proposal was ridiculed by scientists and doctors, they kept holding tight to the truth and eventually made tremendous contribution to the cure of peptic ulcer disease. For the purpose of study, Barry even drank cultured H. pylori by himself. Through over 15 years’ experiments and treatment studies, they successfully challenged prevailing dogmas. Their perseverance and courage truly impressed me.

3. Which Cell papers, from any era, have struck you as truly elegant or inspired?

There are two papers from Cell that are truly elegant. One is “Personal omics profiling reveals dynamic molecular and medical phenotypes” (Chen, R., et al. [2012]. Cell 148, 1293–1307). The team studied an individual’s personal omics profile for 14 months and detected genetic changes relevant with diseases. It demonstrates that a personal omics profile will be of great importance to promote personalized medicine. People are always talking about personal omics, but this paper demonstrated the feasibility of theory with actual results. 

Another one is “A nondegenerate code of deleterious variants in Mendelian loci contributes to complex disease risk” (Blair, D.R., et al. [2013]. Cell 155, 70–80). The team used the medical records of over 100 million patients, and with data mining, they revealed the relationship between Mendelian variation and complex diseases. It demonstrates that digital phenotypic data can be used to better understand disease genetics, and it shows the power of the big data science.  

4. What is your guiding philosophy for running your lab? Your personal philosophy?

Philosophies are beacons, and lots of them are guiding my way to the right direction. The first and foremost is to serve the people, which is just like a harbor where a ship named BGI is heading to. Science could only be useful when people could benefit from it. Therefore, the translation to more applications in healthcare, agriculture, and environment will be BGI’s mission.

Second is that data speaks itself. Traditional hypothesis-driven science has revealed its huge drawbacks. The future of genomics lies in "big data," and the continuing explosion of big data will provide core clues for research. 

Third is to build a platform, create opportunities, and encourage young people to take responsibility. The young generation is the master of the future, and they are leading how much further BGI can go. We have the responsibilities to provide them the best soil for growth. 

The last, but not least, philosophy is the positive attitude. One is to think BIG and carefully, act fast and stepwise. Always have the ultimate goal, and build out-of-the-box thinking. Science is never set in stone but needs new thoughts, ideas, and innovation. The other is to be the change you want to see in the world. Change yourself first and then be the example of your family, colleagues, and friends, and chances may be upon you that you can influence more people and even change the world.

5. What are some unique skills that didn’t make it to your CV? What are some personal hobbies?

The ability of fast thinking, to come up with a solution or answer whenever is needed. Self-encouragement, self-motivation and self-laughing, which are the spirit to keep me moving forward and reach toward the sky.  

My hobbies range from sports to arts, including basketball, mountain climbing, modern arts, and painting. Sports help to relieve my stress and take off pressure. Arts somehow are similar with science to express the beauty of nature with creativity.  

6. What is the biggest challenge facing young scientists? Do you have a solution? 

I think the biggest challenges standing in front of young scientists are that they lack opportunities for growth and don’t have enough courage to achieve changes. The old-fashioned evaluation system restricts one’s innovation and opportunities. BGI has realized the problems and revolutionizes the talent cultivation scheme. The project-based cultivation platform enables them to do real projects. They need to shoulder responsibility and accumulate hands-on experience. Work from learning and learn from working. They will develop stronger minds and be courageously adaptive to change. 

7. If you were to choose another career either now or in 20 years, what would it be? 

I think science will be my lifetime pursuit, and it would be hard to change to another career now. Genomics is a new field full of opportunities and a very important area of scientific research, as well a powerful tool to improve people’s lives in the future. It is a combination of new advancing technologies and massive data. It’s a new challenge but a great fun at the same time. With more and more understanding of genes, huge strides can be made in diseases, plants, animals, and microbes studies. Therefore, there will be lots of things to do in genomics research, and we are the pathfinder. 

If I have to choose, artificial intelligence studies would be another choice.  

8. Working in science is wonderful and challenging but is not without drawbacks. What has been a particular challenge to you?

First, busy life becomes routine and leaves me precious little time with my family. Second, although some scientific problems become less complicated than expectations with the advance of science and technology, there are many puzzles to unlock. I am trying my best to find keys, but the process is still slow. I want to make the technology useful to benefit the people, to help prevent more diseases, feed more hunger regions, and save more lives. I always feel the pressure that we have not achieved enough, not fast enough, and with not enough resources.  Genomics is in its beginning, but how we can do big things together to accelerate the development and translation to application present unimaginable future challenges for us. 

9. Any words of wisdom for those looking for a career in biology?

We are now in an era of big data; go for it and take the challenge to make changes to the world. The current and future bioscience requires multidisciplinary talents in the fields of physics, computer science, and math, beyond biology. So have an open mind and stay eager for new knowledge

The data-driven research model gives us more information than we can digest. Steps should be taken to change from experimental to theoretical research. 

The most important thing is courage.