Jade Wang says this is an exciting time to be studying microbiology
While participating in the Wisconsin Idea Seminar, UW-Madison professor of bacteriology, Jade Wang, says she was able to see firsthand the many ways her research and teaching could impact lives across Wisconsin from improving human health to boosting agricultural production success.
The Wisconsin Idea Seminar is a five-day traveling study tour that introduces UW–Madison faculty, academic staff, and administrators to the Wisconsin Idea and the university’s commitment to use university expertise and resources to address the problems of the state.
“We visited a cherry farm and a cheese factory – family owned businesses that get advice and value feedback from the UW,” says Jade. “UW-Madison is not an isolated ivory tower where people just study and publish. What we study can be directly related to everything and everyone — basic science is very much applicable to medicine and to agricultural practices.”
Wang’s research is funded in part by a U.S. Department of Agriculture Hatch grant. Hatch grants are used to support continuing agricultural research at 1862 Land-grant institutions, as well as state agricultural experiment stations. Funds are to be used to conduct research that promotes permanent and effective agricultural industry of the United States, including research into basic to the problems of agriculture. Wang’s Hatch grant is funding research to understand why some bacteria are antibiotic tolerant and how they develop resistance.
“We are making good progress and hopefully what we learn can be used later to potentiate antibiotic therapy,” she says. “We study bacteria mostly on petri dishes, but what we learned about them is applicable to their growth in nature.”
Wang contends that through education and investing in research, UW-Madison is helping people survive and even thrive in a global market.
“Students- not just graduate students, but also undergraduate students, are performing frontier research in my lab — where we are answering questions that even the professors don’t know the answer – that’s when students understand the complexity of science and the importance of research,” she notes. “To be able to think critically is so important. Doing frontier research allows education to be real and useful.”
Now is an exciting time to be studying microbiology, explains Wang, who came to UW-Madison in 2012. New findings are leading to more questions in the field, new experimental tools and approaches are invented to address questions with biological and clinical significance.
The goal of Wang’s research is to characterize the multifaceted interface between DNA replication and other cellular processes. Through this interface, replication responds readily to metabolic and external cues; conversely, cells monitor the replication status and respond accordingly. Components of this interface are likely to play important roles in the maintaining genomic stability and prevention of genetic diseases and cancer. Mutations in the bacterial genome can, among other things, lead to the development of antibiotic resistance.
“If you think about an organism as a factory, we have a very good understanding of how each machine works in the factory or in the city we understand how each department operates,” Wang explains. “But what we know much less about is how they – when many different parts are together – avoid conflict. When you have so much activity going on there is a potential traffic jam, or conflict between parts. The challenge of biology is to figure out, how do they do that?”
Wang is using powerful data collection approaches to try to answer this and other questions.
“We know a lot each part but we don’t know how they interact. And that’s where physics and system biology can come into play to find answers.”
Jade’s research and collaborative approaches are getting attention. She is a recent Howard Hughes Medical Institute Faculty Scholar award recipient. The Faculty Scholars Program, created through a partnership between HHMI, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the Simons Foundation, is intended to boost the work of promising early-career scientists who have already demonstrated excellence in their fields.
Wang, who was born in China but studied in Canada and then the United States, says she has always loved science.
“I loved solving puzzles and I’ve always wanted to do research. Originally my interest was in physics and mathematics. I enjoyed study physics in college, but I was also drawn to the mystery of biology. I made the transition to biology in graduate school and gradually became interested in microbiology and genomics.”
Her partners in microbiology research today include a bevy of graduate students. Jade’s commitment to student success is clear. Her goal is to train the next generation of biologists for diverse careers that leverage world-class expertise in genetic and genomic research. At UW-Madison students find an extensive level of interdisciplinary and cross-departmental collaboration, that provides them with unique training experiences in doing modern biological research.
Wang says her early success was in part, due to having brilliant graduate and postdoctoral supervisors and she hopes to be as strong of an influence on her own students. Today, Wang mentors students ranging from high schoolers through Ph.D. candidates, underrepresented minority students and postdoctoral researchers.
Wang also is a faculty trainer serving as a mentor for research-track students interested in participating in the Bacteriology M.S. program.
“Mentoring is something I enjoy very much,” Wang says. “It is empowering to see my trainees moving on to greater things. I like to tell my students that if you enjoy what you are doing and the sky is the limit – don’t be self-limiting. And what drives a lot of people to careers in research is insatiable curiosity – I’ve heard that and it makes sense to me.”
Wang teaches two classes for upper undergraduates and graduate students — Advanced Microbial Genetics and Advanced Prokaryotic Molecular Biology.
“I feel very strongly that teaching can be far more successful if you understand your students, and they are all a bit different,” she says. “In my class, Advanced Microbial Genetics, I know all of my student’s names and backgrounds, so that everyone can learn actively through feedback as well as didactic teaching. It’s important to dispense knowledge for students to memorize it. But when you reach a certain stage, the goal is not just to gain more knowledge, but to apply the knowledge to critically address a question, to identify important questions, and then answer those questions.”