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About the Institute

Profile of Xi Huang

Photo of Xi Huang
Dr. Xi Huang

Dr. Xi Huang, PhD

  • Scientist, Developmental & Stem Cell Biology
  • Principal Investigator, Arthur and Sonia Labatt Brain Tumour Research
  • Assistant Professor, Department of Molecular Genetics, University of Toronto

1. Where are you from?/Where did you study?
I was born and raised in Changsha, the capital city of Hunan Province in Southern China. I first studied Biological sciences in Xiamen University for my Bachelor of Science, and then went to Vanderbilt University for my PhD study in Developmental Biology in Dr. Chin Chiang’s lab. For postdoctoral training I studied ion channel function in brain cancer in the lab of Dr. Lily and Yuh Nung Jan at University of California, San Francisco.

2. What are you researching right now?
I am fascinated by how biophysical properties of the cell regulate normal brain development and cancer growth. For many decades cancer has been studied from various biochemical aspects. Many biochemical pathways and molecules have been identified to be critical for tumour growth and therapeutic targets for developing anti-cancer drugs. I think the biophysical properties of the cells, such as bioelectrical activities and biomechanical dynamics, also play a critical role for normal development and tumorigenesis, or the formation of tumours, in the brain. I am fortunate to have talented lab members at SickKids who are currently studying how several ion channels control the spatiotemporal flow of ions across cell membranes, which in turn regulates the cellular biophysical properties to profoundly influence brain development and tumorigenesis. We use human cells, fruit flies and mice as our model systems.

3. Who is your all-time favourite scientist, and why?
Without hesitation I have to say my favorite scientists are my postdoctoral mentors Drs. Lily and Yuh Nung Jan. In my mind they represent someone who I dream to be as a scientist. They’ve made truly revolutionary discoveries in many areas of neuroscience, they’ve trained hundreds of scientific progenies who are now highly successful scientists all over the world. (e.g. Members of U.S. National Academy of Sciences, Howard Hughes Medical Investigators, leaders in world-renowned research institute including Gabrielle Boulianne here at SickKids!). They are wife and husband, long-term collaborators and they travel the world together. Although having achieved so much, they are still very humble and work very hard – harder than some postdocs in their lab I think. I highly encourage people to go to their lab website.

4. What in your opinion is the single most important scientific breakthrough, and why?
In my mind, there’s no single most important scientific breakthrough. Just like I do not rank which paper is more important than another, I admire all the technical and conceptual breakthroughs, from the discovery of DNA double helix, to the development of first gene knockout mouse, to the more recent CRISPR technique. I think these are all diamonds carved out of rough stones due to wonderful human endeavors. They urge us to achieve more in our pursuit of science.

5. What are your major interests outside the lab?
Before I had kids, they were basketball and strategic games. Now kids and family are what make me the happiest guy ever.

6. Why science?
What I like most about science is the intellectual freedom it offers. As I always think to myself, I would be really bored by professions that are more predictable. I relish the process of developing hypotheses, testing whether they are right or wrong, and each little step that leads us close to the truth. I truly enjoy doing science because it is probably the one thing in the world that no one else in human history has done. Brave people venture into unknown, and the ones who persist and endure all difficulties get to see the beautiful sights that others did not see before. Then, by publishing a paper, you can build a road and show others the way.

7. Why SickKids?
I’ve read so many papers by scientists at SickKids at each step of my scientific training. For example, when I studied Sonic hedgehog signaling as a PhD student, I read all the hedgehog papers from Dr. C.C. Hui and  when I studied brain tumours as a postdoc I read all the medulloblastoma and brain tumour stem cell papers from Drs. Michael Taylor and Peter Dirks. When I interviewed at SickKids I was also amazed by the breadth and depth of science happening here in my DSCB program and other programs. Once you’ve read so many landmark papers from SickKids for many years, and got an offer to work here with these great scientists, how would one ever say no?

8. What is the most controversial question in your field right now?
I consider the question to be whether ion channels are “oncogenes” (genes that in certain circumstances can transform a cell into a tumour cell) or “tumour suppressors.” This is a very controversial question in the field. Certainly, the manipulation of ion channels can have a profound influence on tumour cell growth in a dish or in model organisms. I am still uncertain whether they are truly oncogenes which initiate tumours, tumour suppressors that function as gatekeepers to prevent cancer, or modulators for various aspects of tumour biology, for example, growth or spread. We are working on multiple projects that will hopefully help us understand the mechanisms underlying ion channel regulation in cancer, and address this controversial question.

9. What are you reading right now?
It may sound boring to some people, but I am reading papers all the time! Just like I always joke with my wife, I think reading a paper is like watching a movie. The authors are directors of the movie, I can see a logical story unfold before my eyes, and get to evaluate which parts I like and don’t like, or perhaps imagine I was a director, what I would do to make it better. I get all the excitement I need from reading papers, so I don’t have much need or time to read other books, at least not at this stage of my life.

10. If you could give one piece of advice to someone considering a research career, what would it be?
Passion and passion. You have to really enjoy what you like about science and just do it. By doing it I mean first think and do the right experiments. Enjoy the intellectual freedom science offers and do not be afraid to make mistakes as they usually bring you to rewarding outcomes. If science is what you like and what you choose to do for your career, give it 100 per cent. Give it 100 per cent too if you choose another career. Don’t choose an “easy life.” Not fun.

January 2017

Lab site
Scientific profile