Neuron 期刊每年在美国神经科学学会年会同期出版主题综述合集。过去一年多的全球疫情对大家的工作和生活产生了巨大的影响，然而神经科学界一直保持的很高的活跃程度。Neuron以这个特殊时期所面临的挑战为背景，组织了系列专刊，通过 “NeuroView”和 “Q&A”（问与答）的形式，请来自不同地区、背景、生活与职业阶段的神经科学工作者分享近期的个人经历。
Prof. Xiang Yu
In this Neuron Q&A, Xiang Yu talks about the stress and anxiety brought to the lab by the pandemic, the new opportunities for teaching and scientific conferences it created, the value of the individual, and the social responsibility of science for humanity and society to shape a brighter future.
Xiang Yu is Professor in the School of Life Sciences at Peking University, Investigator of the Peking-Tsinghua Center of Life Sciences and McGovern Institute for Brain Research, and Director of the Autism Research Center of Peking University Health Science Center. She received her BA and PhD from Trinity College, University of Cambridge, in the UK She carried out her thesis work at the MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology and her postdoctoral work at Stanford University. Between 2005 and 2019, she was Principal Investigator at the Institute of Neuroscience, Chinese Academy of Sciences, in Shanghai, China.
Her laboratory is interested in understanding the molecular mechanisms underlying experience-dependent neural circuit formation and plasticity, specifically why the young brain is more plastic and how developmental neurological disorders such as autism spectrum disorder (ASD) affect brain development. The long-term goal of the laboratory is to understand key genetic and environmental regulators of neural circuit wiring, and to use this knowledge toward the diagnosis and treatment of ASD. Mechanistic studies in the laboratory are carried out in rodents, using a combination of molecular, genetic, electrophysiological, imaging, and behavioral assays. The lab also collaborates extensively with clinicians to develop early diagnosis tools and effective intervention methods for children with ASD.
Did you and your lab encounter particular difficulties over the past months? How did you overcome them?
My lab moved from Shanghai to Beijing in 2019. By the end of the year, the lab space was fully furbished, new equipment had arrived, and all lab members had relocated to Beijing. Everyone then went home for what they thought was a two-week Chinese New Year vacation. Then the pandemic broke out and they were instead stuck at home for up to 8 months.
The main difficulty that the lab encountered was delays due to moving compounded by pandemic-induced delays. At the beginning, we thought that the few of us left in Beijing only needed to keep things running for a couple of weeks. When the few weeks prolonging indefinitely, at some point, everyone panicked. There was a sudden scramble for laptops left in apartments, copying of data from lab hard drives, and extended social media conversations about how to manage transgenic mouse colonies with the main person not onsite. We started journal club online so that everyone can get some scientific interactions once a week. I also talked online with students individually to figure out what analyses and writing they could do at home. For most people, being at home was less efficient than in the lab, although some were able to develop their critical thinking, writing, or presentation skills significantly. Eventually, everyone got back in the lab. This summer, experiments are finally running at pre-pandemic speed, although the lingering fear of potential new disruptions is still in the air.
What has your lab’s morale been like over the last 18 months? If there were lows, how did you address them?
The past 18 months has certainly been stressful for lab members. It has been especially difficult for senior graduate students, already very anxious about time lost due to moving and having to reset up difficult experiments in a different location. In addition to pandemic-induced delays and uncertainties, lab members who had other halves in Shanghai also had to deal with ever-changing travel restrictions. For a while, new online lab meetings, reading papers, and writing manuscripts or theses kept lab members busy. Then at some point, everyone just wanted to get back to lab. When they couldn’t and the wait seemed indefinite, anxiety grew. When lab members gradually came back, but experiments picked up very slowly, anxiety remained high for quite a while. I am not sure that I helped everyone in the best possible way at the time. In retrospect, sharing information in real time was very important. Just letting students know that I was making every possible effort to get them back to the lab, and that campus was slowly opening up, gave hope. I also tried to simplify projects and add interim goals, so that the option of wrapping up projects sooner was available. I also significantly reduced traveling, so that I could be in the lab to help out when needed.
This year’s challenges may have caused you to rethink some aspects inherent to academic life. Are there any changes your lab has had to adopt that you’d like to maintain going forward?
I think online lab meetings will stay. We now have hybrid lab meetings, where lab members can join online if for whatever reason they cannot be onsite. Lab members also make sure to take their laptops and data hard drives when they leave town, in case something happens and they cannot return to lab immediately. We have also tried to run experiments with backup plans, to back up data quickl,y and to keep stocks of supplies. I hope these good habits will stay long term.
In your view, what are the most pressing questions in neuroscience?
Combining my personal experience over the past two years, together with my research interests, what pops to mind is how social interactions shape our mental health and decision making, and how uncertainty induces stress and anxiety. As neuroscientists, we can study the molecular and circuit mechanisms underlying these phenomena and contribute to developing strategies to alleviate the negative consequences of reduced social interactions.
As developmental neurobiologists, I think it is very important to understand how social interactions contribute to early neural circuit wiring and plasticity, and also what goes awry in developmental disorders with deficits in social behavior, such as ASD. A better understanding of these mechanisms can help us minimize the negative consequences of reduced social interactions on human behavior, if and when the next pandemic or natural disaster arrives. We can also better understand how enriched social interactions contributes to brain development and plasticity.
Many institutions and funding agencies have extended evaluation cycles for grant renewals and promotion and tenure decisions. Do you think recommendations put in place have been enough? What has been done at your institution?
Peking University, like many other institutions and grant agencies in China, has given extensions, or opportunity to request extensions, on tenure decisions, promotions, and academy reviews. I think it is very important to recognize that the pandemic affected different people differently. For most people, the pandemic has been incredibly disruptive, as projects close to completion may be scooped and lab morale may be at all-time low. The extent of disruption, however, varies from person to person. Thus, I think it is very important to consider each case individually when making tenure and promotion decisions. In terms of recommendations for what more can be done, I also think it is case by case: for some, bridge funding may be more important, while for others, some type of counseling to ease anxiety in lab members may be more critical. Showing that the institution cares about each individual and tries to be helpful is a very important step in easing anxiety.
Have the global or local events of the past months catalyzed changes at your institution or lab that you’d like to share?
Very shortly after the pandemic broke out, Peking University made the decision to moving all classes online, and starting the Spring Term as originally planned, on February 17th, 2020. There were some preexisting online teaching platforms and a number of pre-recorded classes, but most professors had no experiences teaching online. We were giving crash classes on how to do it and could choose from a large number of online teaching options. For example, basic mathematics and physics classes were broadcasted from classrooms to a large number of students, while small discussion classes used more interactive platforms such as Zoom or Tencent. It took a few months of scrambling and several hardware upgrades for the thousands of online classes to run smoothly. With all their imperfections, the online classes gave undergraduates the possibility of graduating on time and allowed graduate students to focus on experiments once they returned to campus. Another positive outcome is that all lectures taught in classrooms on campus are now automatically recorded. In other words, students who miss class for any reason, can catch up later by watching the recoded video. The ability to go online at the tap of a finger is an important skill that this pandemic forced us to develop.
What do you think are the biggest possibilities or challenges for the education of future scientists?
The digital move, including but not limited to online teaching and seminars, is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, they greatly increased accessibility. On the other hand, they have pushed students further toward a passive learning mode. By handing out our PowerPoint presentations ahead of class, we can teach much faster than the old days when everyone took hand written notes. But have the students really learnt and remembered what we taught them? Can they use the knowledge to solve problems? I think we need to increase “active” teaching at all levels, by giving students more opportunities to do presentations, to do hands-on lab work, and to solve problems for which the internet does not provide answers. I think once the new generation realizes that it is more fun to “do” things than to “watch” things, they will bring many innovative ideas and drive scientific advances. I also think it is important to introduce the concept of social responsibility early on. As scientists, curiosity is the primary driver of scientific discoveries. However, at the back of our minds should be the desire to contribute to humanity and to society.
What advice do you find yourself giving to your students and postdocs? Has that advice changed over the last year?
Every year, between New Year and Chinese Lunar New Year, I sit down for a one-on-one annual chat with all my trainees, including students, postdocs, and technicians. Some trainees of collaborators really like the idea and also ask for a chat. Before the meeting, each person sends in a one-page summary answering the following questions: (1) what I did last year; (2) what I plan to do this year; (3) what plans I have for the next five years. This is often accompanied by a PowerPoint presentation with data summary of the past year. For each person, the focus of the discussion varies yearly, more data oriented sometimes, more personal future direction oriented other times. Often, in talking about their plans, students cannot decide whether they want to: (1) try to get an independent lab head position, (2) take up a research associate or technical position at a university or research institution; (3) take up a research position in a biotech company; or (4) do something else, related or unrelated to their training. To help them figure things out, I typically ask for their first two choices, ranked or unranked, and that often initiates a productive discussion on future priorities. I believe that teaching trainees how to integrate priorities and plan for the future is one of the most important things that I can do for them. In the pandemic era and beyond, planning is even more important than before. The flexibility to change the actual plan while maintaining personal goals and priorities is also critical. I believe that long-term planning, like all skills, need practice, so it is better to start soon. Embedded in the planning process is the ordering one’s priorities, which significantly facilitates decision making.
Do you have any advice for senior postdocs on the job market and graduate students looking for postdoc opportunities?
My advice is be decisive. Getting on the job market means reduced productivity in the current lab. Due to other pandemic-induced reductions in productivity, getting on the job market is realistically a one-shot deal for most people. One needs to organize priorities and think clearly about what offers one is willing to take before starting the endeavor. Waiting for next year may be a good option for some people and not so good a choice for others, and next year cannot extend indefinitely. Most times, I believe that taking an imperfect choice is better than waiting around, in the long run. I also believe that it is important to not think too much about “what if,” as the future is never certain. I try to avoid outcomes that I really dislike. When I have a clear favorite choice, I make serious efforts. However, if I don’t get it, I generally take the best available option and move on.
For graduate students from countries where doing a postdoc abroad has been a common choice, pandemic-induced travel restrictions becomes a concern in decision making. Here again, I recommend making a decision and following it through. The most important assets coming out of postdoc training are a good research direction, significant scientific contributions, and solid training. A lab that can fulfill these criteria, while accommodating one’s personal life preferences, is a good choice. Anything more is a cherry on top.
What is the future of scientific conferences? Are virtual meetings here to stay?
I think the pandemic has changed scientific conferences for good, introducing many new formats that are here to stay. First, I believe that future conferences will be more diverse, including small in-person conferences, hybrid conferences, and virtual conferences. We can choose to go to a small conference to catch up with old friends and meet new friends, present unpublished data, and spend a lot of time in social interactions. At other times, we may prefer large virtual conferences that are broadcasted to thousands of people, where we can quickly learn state-of-the-art advances in a research field without leaving the comfort of our home or office. Hybrid conferences would be somewhere in between. In addition to all the conveniences, virtual conferences are great equalizers, as they are often at reduced rate as compared to in-person conferences, or free altogether, and there are also no travel or hotel costs. The hybrid and virtual conferences also offer much more flexibility in terms of speaker invitation and participation. For example, I am organizing an autism conference in Beijing this fall, where international speakers are invited to speak virtually. One invited speaker already had previously committed to a conference in Italy, but agreed to send a recorded video to me ahead of time. This way, he can sip Brunello at a café in Piazza del Campo in Siena, while giving a talk in Beijing. Life does not get much cooler.
What in your mind has been the main lesson from the recent challenges related to the pandemic?
I think of the pandemic as both a major disruption and a rare opportunity to regroup and reprioritize. The disruptions, which are still ongoing, are more than most of us have ever encountered. The repercussions will surely be long lasting, even though the “how” and the “what” will only be clear much later. The pandemic downtime gives us a forced break from our usual routines to reorganize our priorities, and for some, re-plan future directions. Because of the uncertainties brought on by the pandemic, decisions typically have much more unpredictable consequences, which makes the decision-making process even more important. If as individuals and society as a whole we learn to think more critically and take more responsibility for our actions, we may come out with a brighter future in the longer term.