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Biochemistry and Molecular Biotechnology Blog

Judy Huang

Sunday, October 03, 2021

Judy HuangMeet Judy Huang, a 3rd year PhD student in Celia Schiffer’s lab. Judy is Chinese Canadian and grew up in between Beijing and Canada. In 2019 she graduated from McGill university with a degree in Microbiology and Immunology. Outside of science, Judy is passionate about diversity efforts both on and off campus. She is a member of the Diversity Interest Group (DIG), and this is their second year as the Diversity and Inclusion Co-Chair for the Graduate Student Body Committee (GSBC). With her position in the grad school committee, Judy is always happy to chat with peers about any personal or academic difficulties students may have and wants to keep an open line of communication between the students and the committee. Judy used to run a multimedia feminist publication, where organizing launch parties with live music, poetry readings, and gallery showings was part of the job. Judy also loves roller blading! 

What set you on this trajectory of becoming a scientist? 

I wasn't sure what I was going to pursue in university until my last year of high school. I was pretty sure I was going to go into some sort of finance degree and then to law school. When I was in Grade 12, I took a Biotech class and we were able to go to the local university and do gram staining, extract DNA from peas, and run gels. The final project of the class was a literature review on a current biotechnology topic, which was the first time I was exposed to scientific literature. As I focused on monoclonal antibodies for my project, I ended up pursuing a Microbiology and Immunology degree during university. I was always interested in viruses because I think they are very clever little organisms, and in undergrad my thesis research was on interferon-stimulated genes against herpes viruses, which really got me to fall in love with these microorganisms and apply for PhD programs. 

Were there any setbacks to your trajectory, and how did you overcome them? 

The one setback to my trajectory is that I didn't really realize this is something I wanted to do until late. I actually failed a lot of my science classes and didn’t get to realize I had a passion for it until later. I overcame this by having to constantly repeat to myself that I could do it and that I'm not a total academic failure. I was interested in it, and I wanted to read more about it. That push led me to do an undergrad degree in Microbiology and Immunology where I further fell more in love with the Microbiology side. I think honestly, I had a smooth undergraduate degree and I think that's because I had a lot of interests outside of it. I was really involved with the local community and running the publication, which led to me not directing most of my anxiety towards academics. I was able to build a wonderful community around myself and even though not everyone I knew was a scientist at the time, I was able to expand my interests. 

What is your current research focus? 

I’m using cryo-electron tomography to study influenza viruses, which are very prolific viruses that affect a large part of society and poses a severe public health burden. They’re very well studied, but at the same time we don't understand everything about it, especially from a structural point of view. Influenza viruses are prototypical pleomorphic viruses with a lipid bilayer and lack a constrained rigid structural form. I’m very interested to see how morphology affects its biological functions. I’m using Cryo-EM methods to look at morphology, function, and cellular entry. 

How would you describe your research? 

I am working on an infectious disease that affects a lot of people. Even though we had a pretty mild influenza season this year because of masking and social distancing methods, traditionally speaking we do see millions of cases in the US each year, hundreds of thousands of hospitalizations, and tens of thousands of deaths. It’s a bigger threat than a lot of people realize. It is especially crucial when it manifests within the elderly and people with comorbidities such as HIV/AIDS or in younger children, so it's still something we need to think about. The current vaccines have to be reformulated each year, and scientists have to predict the different influenza subtypes circulating in the population and try to target those with the vaccines. My greater goal would be to conclude how influenza viruses’ form translate to function. 

How does it apply to the broader world and why is your research important outside of the scientific community? 

This research would translate in helping to design more universal vaccines, as well as just understanding more about this virus. The Schiffer lab is very interested in structure-based drug design, which is also relevant as to what I’m doing and what led me to the current field which is my interest in viruses and my interest in structural biology. 

Why did you choose this lab/department at UMass Chan? 

I interviewed with Celia when during my UMass Chan Medical School interviews. Celia was one of the people I really wanted to work with even before interviewing. Celia is a very kind person, and I was drawn to work in the lab environment she has fostered. The group uses interdisciplinary techniques, thus I’m able to learn not only structural methods, but also computational analysis and molecular dynamics simulations. I think this can help me become familiar with a variety of things that I could leverage and utilize in my later career. 

What’s the coolest thing about your research and that you enjoy the most? 

I never really considered myself a visual learner before doing structural biology, but it’s been really cool to be able to visualize influenza viruses which are on the scale of nanometers to micrometers. It’s just crazy the amount of detail you can see. I think structural biology is a very aesthetically pleasing field.

What’s one thing you would like to achieve with your research? 

I think understanding the structural basis of viral function is very important as well as learning more about these viruses in general. We’re currently enduring a global pandemic and it is very likely we will encounter more viral threats during our lifetime. It is really important to gain as much knowledge on these pathogens as possible for future pandemic preparedness. 

What are some of the lessons you learned along the way that you would like to share with trainees who recently joined the BMP department? 

For trainees that recently joined the BMP department, it’s important to form connections and talk to people outside of your own lab. I’ve learned a lot from different people on this floor. I’ve felt like I was a part of the department from the beginning and new trainees should know there is a community that one can fall back on. 

Any advice you wished you had gotten when you first started as a scientist? 

I wish I had known that Google is my best friend! I currently do mostly computational work, and whenever I run into an error, I google it and 95% of the time it just pops up. I use a lot of academic software packages, so It’s also important to know that you can almost always reach out directly to developers. 99% of the time they are very helpful and ready to answer any questions you may have. Lastly, utilize all the resources you have as a student and form a community around you. 

What role do you think scientists play in helping to solve some of the current issues we face as a society? 

Under this current backdrop of societal issues, I think scientists have a lot to give to society and that science communication is crucial. A lot of the discussions we have with the public really need to be conveyed in a meaningful but easy to understand manner. If you take five minutes to talk to your friends about what you do and topics that are important, I think people would be more inclined to listen. People who do science should also become communicators and educators. 

Where do you see yourself in 5 years, and how can this department help you get there? 

There are so many options and I think I’m early enough in my career that I don’t really have a concrete idea of what I want to do. I want to use my time at UMass Med to form meaningful connections within BMP, with other people at UMass Med, and with external collaborators and mentors. I think engaging with the wider scientific community will help me realize my passions and help me leverage my skillset for a future career. 

Is there something you would say to your younger self? 

It gets better. Try your best to form connections with those around you and find people you can go to. There is always something to learn from everyone. Be yourself and be the best person you can.