Dr. Tao Cheng, MD, is the scientific director of the Institute of Hematology and Blood Diseases Hospital, Chinese Academy of Medical Sciences (CAMS) and Peking Union Medical College, the director of the State Key Laboratory for Experimental Hematology and the founding director of the Center for Stem Cell Medicine at CAMS in China. He received his medical degree from the Second Military Medical University in Shanghai, China, followed by his residency in internal medicine and clinical fellowship in hematology at Changhai Hospital, Shanghai. Dr. Cheng did his postdoctoral research training at the Hipple Cancer Research Center, Dayton, Ohio and Massachusetts General Hospital/Harvard Medical School, Boston before moving to the University of Pittsburgh.
Dr. Cheng has 28 years of experience in hematology and 21 years in stem cell research, working in the fields of hematopoietic stem cell biology and leukemia biology. He first attended the ISEH annual meeting in 1995 and became a member of the society in 2002. He has been involved with the society as an executive committee member/treasurer (2010-2012), member of the Editorial Board of Experimental Hematology (since 2007) and has recently become an Associate Editor of the journal.
Dr. Cheng took the time to participate in a Q&A session with Connections. Below he explains how he got involved with the field of hematology, his decision to continue his research career in China, his advice to recruit more ISEH members in Asia and how he sees his new role as Associate Editor of Experimental Hematology.
How did you find your way to the hematology and stem cells scientific field?
When I was a third-year medical student before taking clinical courses, one of my classmates and roommates had a high fever after we played a soccer game. Shortly after he was sent to the hospital, he was diagnosed with acute leukemia and, tragically, he died of the disease in only a month. That shocking experience triggered me to develop a strong desire in doing hematology and stem cell research.
How were you introduced to ISEH?
I knew ISEH since I was a senior medical graduate student in the late 1980s. I submitted an abstract to the ISEH annual meeting in 1990 and obtained a travel award. Unfortunately, due to the international travel restrictions in China at that time, I was not able to attend the meeting.
Who was your most influential senior investigator mentor and how did he or she help you?
Dr. David Scadden, who was my mentor during my postgraduate training and also for my junior faculty tenure at Harvard. Shortly after I joined his lab, he sent me to attend the ISEH meeting in 1995. He has provided instrumental and constant guidance for my academic career development since then.
How are you helping to mentor new investigators at your lab/facility?
First of all, I always try to mobilize the young investigators to have a true, strong interest for scientific research. Second, I suggest them to have reasonable goals (both personal and job-related) throughout their career. Third, I advise them to constantly improve their communication skills, which are crucial for data presentation, paper/grant preparation, collaborative efforts, etc.
There are a lot of interesting aspects of this scientific field; what do you find the most exciting?
The most exciting aspect to me is living in an ever fast-developing era, in which researchers are able to dissect complex disease problems with all kinds of “omics”, single cell technologies and systems biology approaches with an emphasis on clinical relevance.
What is the most exciting study or project happening at your lab/facility?
Reprograming of hematopoietic cells is one of the important projects in my lab. Research on cell reprogramming will not only generate unprecedented promise for regenerative medicine but also provide a powerful tool to study the epigenetics of cells such as hematopoietic cells and leukemia cells.
Given your experience in the field, how have you seen the field change in the last five years?
Due to advances in technology, the field has changed dramatically. On one hand, our understanding of biology is becoming deeper. For example, many questions are to be addressed at the single cell and single molecule levels. On the other hand, translational studies have become a major trend. Clinical relevance or therapeutic potential of any biomedical study is an important element that needs to be assessed in order to make a stronger impact.
It is clear that the field is going to continue to evolve at an amazing pace. How do you see it changing over the next five years?
The above trends will continue, but given the increasing complexity of most studies, mega data technology coupled with systems biology is going to be in great demand in the years to come.
What do you consider the biggest challenge currently facing the hematology and stem cells scientific field and how can it be managed?
For hematology research, cutting costs down to deliver more affordable medicine is a major challenge. In addition to science, researchers may also have some practical considerations when they choose specific compounds or biological agents to work with. For stem cell research, providing scientific guidance for properly conducting clinical stem cell trials will also be a big challenge. Basic research can contribute more to the standardization of stem cell products in the future.
Does your lab have any big studies or projects planned in the near future?
With my basic research background mainly in hematopoietic stem cell biology, my research is moving toward a more translational direction in the future
You worked in the USA for several years, why did you decide to continue your research career in China?
The research platform is larger and the funding situation is better in China.
What are the challenges and the rewards of working as a researcher in China?
The academic atmosphere is not as strong as in the States, although it is improving. We could take some more scientifically challenging and more patient-relevant projects in China.
How would you describe the funding climate in your country for biomedical research in general and for your specific type of research in particular?
The funding situation in China is quite good in general and the mechanism for awarding grants is improving. There has been a special emphasis on stem cell research in recent years, which is particularly relevant to my research focus.
What advice do you have for new investigators that are considering to return to China to pursue a career in research?
If you believe more opportunities are important for a speedy career development, you should find a job in China.
What advice to you have for your government to recruit high level researchers?
The government has implemented a favorable policy allowing us to recruit high-level researchers. In fact, with the current policy, I have been able to recruit internationally-renowned researchers from other counties (such as Hideo Emma from Japan).
You are the newest Associate Editor of Experimental Hematology. Why did you accept the role? Do you think that it is important for the journal to have an Associate Editor working in China. Why?
On one hand, I want to contribute to the society and the field from which my career has benefited. On the other hand, this position may help to further improve the quality of papers coming from China, especially given the rapidly increasing submissions from China to western journals like Experimental Hematology.
Do you have any advice to help recruit more ISEH members in Asia?
ISEH can have more presence in Asia by organizing or co-organizing workshops, symposiums or training courses.
What do you find most valuable about ISEH?
Both science and location are quite important to me.
Why do you attend the ISEH Annual Scientific Meeting?
I attend it in order to catch up with the cutting-edge research in hematology and socialize with colleagues in the field.
What is your favorite ISEH Annual Scientific Meeting memory?
One was during the ISEH meeting I attended in 1995 in Düsseldorf, Germany and another was during last year’s ISEH in Montréal
What are your?
Hobbies: swimming, music
Favorite book(s): Albert Einstein, Steven Jobs, classical Chinese novels such as Romance of the Three Kingdoms
Favorite movie(s): Titanic, Interstellar
If you could meet one person (dead or alive) who would it be and why?
Charles Darwin. I would ask him what the true motivation for him to undertake his evolution discovery journey is: pure scientific curiosity or something else?