December 17th, 2019

By: Yao Wang

My connection to science starts early. By early, I mean really early. My mom always tells me the story about my one-year-old catch, which is an ancient Chinese tradition for determining the child’s talent at his/her first birthday. In China, we believe everybody is gifted in something and this magical divination is the methodology to tell.

During my catch, a line of toys representing a different occupation or future was presented to me.  My mom said, I crawled straight to the pink toy that represented science, ignoring all the money and gold on the floor. Not sure it was the pink part or toy part that got me. But all my family were very happy with my instinct choice, especially my grandparents who were both scientists. Ever since then, I grew up with my grandparents’ science stories, which fascinated me and nucleated a science dream in a little girl’s mind. However, science was still far-reaching for me until in high school, when I conducted my first experiment on observation of my own epithelial cells. For the first time, the science was more than a story or an image on the book. I clearly remember how simple the experiment was but how much joy I had. After that, I experienced my first physics and then chemistry experiment. I had a lot of fun from testing Newton’s Law to observing the color reaction. However, the scene of vivid epithelial cell under the microscope stuck in my head and I couldn’t stop thinking about it. It was the moment that I knew I was determined.

Following my heart, I completed my B.S. study, focusing on Polymer Science, and my M.S. study, focusing on Biomaterials. The knowledge I learn from school is priceless as it  introduced me to science, where the greatest scientists are. The possibility of becoming one of them drives me to march forward. Soon, I was fortunate to join the protein engineering and molecular design lab and became a Ph.D. candidate. As a research assistant, I work on hydrogels that can “sense and respond” derived from proteins for biomedical applications.

A hydrogel is a gel much like Jello, which is comprised of chains of molecules that can absorb water. Many applications of hydrogels related to daily life includes cosmetic hydrogel masks, consumable jellys, contact lenses and diapers. Over the past few years, applications of hydrogels for  biomedicine surged. For example, hydrogels have been used as tissue scaffolds and wound healing patches. Due to the fact that these hydrogels are directly in contact with cells and tissues, it will be better if the material made of the hydrogel is safe. Therefore, my research is important as we are trying to create hydrogels made of proteins.

The life of a scientist isn’t saturated with happiness and success, but also comes with tears and failure. There have been a time when I was crushed, overwhelmed, and helpless. However, the little girl inside me never gives up and tries no matter how hard it is. After millions of failures, I finally succeeded to fabricate my first protein hydrogel. Looking at the white booger-like sticky thing, I experience the same feeling as when I was the little girl spotting her first epithelial cell. The moment of ultimate happiness makes all the tears and efforts pay off. More challenges may lead to more failures, but with more trying bears more success.

My research journey has been fascinating so far and surely more adventurous tasks and challenging moments will follow. I have no idea how many more challenges I need to conquer. But I am sure no matter how, the little girl inside me has the courage to carry on, although she really didn’t know what she grabbed in the first place.

Yao Wang