Michael Xiang: Double UROP Extraordinaire! by Melis A. '08
Michael Xiang has two UROPs, one at the Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research and another in the Health Sciences & Technology division. He studies the expression cloning of the adiponectin receptor and analyzes protein interactions, functionality, and mass using bioinformatics and proteomics.
Speaking from experience, having a UROP is a big time and emotional investment. On average, UROPers spend eight hours in the lab per week and a lot of free time thinking about possible experiments and troubleshooting. You can imagine how awesome Michael Xiang, a junior in Biology with minors in Chemistry and Biomedical Engineering, must be for having not one, but two UROPs! Since February 2005, he has been simultaneously working on biology-related projects at the Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research and a lab in the Health Sciences & Technology (HST) program. Xiang has an incredible amount of passion for research and loves that at MIT “there’s so much going on that you’re bound to find something that will get your blood flowing, your mind thinking, or your heart racing.”
At the Whitehead Institute, Mike works under the auspices of Prof. Harvey Lodish and senior investigator Christopher Hug on a project studying the expression cloning of the adiponectin receptor. Identified in the Lodish lab a few years ago, adiponectin (see the ribbon representation on the right) is a hormone excreted by fat cells, also known as adipocytes. It acts on muscle and the liver to promote the metabolism of fatty acids and glucose, as well as aids in the synthesis of glycogen (a large branched molecule that stores glucose in cells). Since adiponectin is used to metabolize, or break down, fats and sugar, you would expect it to be in high levels in obese or diabetic people. However, the opposite has been found… it’s actually found at decreased levels! The signaling receptor of adiponectin is still unknown, but could be crucial for further understanding the hormone and possibly applying the knowledge gained to preventing diabetes and obesity. To find the receptor, Mike and his colleagues are using a technique called expression cloning. Mike explains, “Basically, we take the mRNA from mouse tissue, make DNA from it (called cDNA), and then deliver the DNA to cells that cannot bind adiponectin. Some cells will get DNA enabling them to bind adiponectin.” By identifying and isolating those special cells, you can figure out the DNA coding for the receptor. Voila!
His UROP in HST is in the field of bioinformatics. He uses MATLAB “to analyze data, form and test hypotheses, and write code to the previous things.” Thus, he has a lot of flexibility in his hours since all he needs is his laptop, instead of a giant bench top with lots of fancy, expensive equipment. Mike helped to build a database called the “massome” where you can search for protein interactions based on the mass of the interactors. This database will help study how mass relates to protein interactions and protein functionality. He also worked on software to identify the most significant biological functions that are represented in a sample of proteins.
Mike found out about these UROP opportunities in two very different ways. He got the Whitehead UROP by emailing professors, but warns that this method does not always yield the best results. If you really want to work in a specific lab, it’s in your best interest to speak to the professor directly. For example, he got his HST UROP by taking a class in IAP 2005 called “Bioinformatics proteomics: an engineering-based problem-solving approach.” After the conclusion of the class, he talked to one of the lectures and nailed a job. He says, “at MIT, it’s good to always be on the lookout for opportunities, because they could present themselves at any time and there are so many.”
As a self-professed workaholic, Mike loves learning about new areas of knowledge and new lab techniques, while finding the potential of making a new discovery to be very “adrenaline-inducing.” Though the day-to-day pace can be pretty slow, he says that he “really cherishes the moments when dramatic results come in or are on their way. The anticipation can be addictive!” He also really enjoys the atmosphere and camaraderie of the Lodish lab, they even went together on a day trip to climb Mt. Moosilauke of the White Mountains in NH (picture below, Mike’s wearing the ZBT sweatshirt). One of my best friends from high school spent the summer maintaining the trails there, so I can imagine that a trip there would be quite the treat!
In his free time (yes he has free time, who would have thought,) he keeps sane by participating in the Concert Choir, serving as Philantropy Chair and Treasurer in his fraternity Zeta Beta Tau, tutoring, and participating in the Biology Undergraduate Student Association (BUSA) and the Biomedical Engineering Society (BMES.) Take Mike’s advice by working hard and playing hard, and “remember, if you don’t like being here or you find you’re unhappy, something’s wrong” — he obviously knows what he’s talking about.
(Picture of adiponectin from: this site)