Wenjun Xu – The best of both worlds

Wenjun Xu – The best of both worlds

Tags: , , ,

By: Karrie Wong

Student: Wenjun Xu, 3rd year PhD student
Supervisor: Dr. Cindi Morshead

It is no secret that the world of science can be a frustrating one in which every successful experiment is preceded by numerous experimental failures. Whenever frustration threatens to spoil her day in the lab, Wenjun Xu – a PhD student in the IMS – simply reminds herself of a different world that she experienced during a volunteering trip to Nicaragua and Costa Rica last year. “I think of how people there make the most out of what little they have every day, and how in comparison my problems can all be overcome.”

The two-week long trip, which Xu organized through VIDA (a non-profit organization that facilitates volunteer-based public health services in Central America), is a highlight of Xu’s graduate experience. Along with 15 students from various graduate departments within the Faculty of Medicine, Xu and her peers traveled through remote regions in the two Central American countries, stayed in local homes, visited orphanages and AIDS centres, worked with local medical personnel, and helped to set up mobile clinics. It was long hours of hard work every day under smothering heat, but the group’s efforts were returned in the form of warm smiles and appreciation from the local communities. When asked how the experience had influenced her research and outlook on graduate school in general, she offered: “Although we were physically exhausted every day during the trip, at the end of the trip I felt as though my mind was recharged. I came back with a new perspective and more ready for the challenges and potential frustrations ahead.”

Not that Xu has ever really minded the challenges of science in the first place: “I love basic science because it answers fundamental questions.” Having completed her undergraduate degree in forensic science at the University of Toronto, Xu chose to pursue graduate studies at the IMS rather than a CSI-style career. In particular, she was fascinated by regenerative medicine and stem cell research. “I took a course that focused a lot on stem cells and biotechnology, and after that course there was no turning back – I was determined to take part in stem cell research,” Xu recalls. That opportunity arrived when she met with her now supervisor, Dr. Cindi Morshead, an expert in neural stem cells whose energy and passion for science Xu found inspiring. Xu has been a happy member of the Morshead lab ever since.

Now in the third year of her PhD studies, Xu is involved in two distinct projects. She is exploring the activation and mobilization of endogeneous spinal cord stem cells in spinal cord injury by infusion of cyclosporine A; at the same time, she is investigating a novel adult neural stem cell population that expresses markers of pluripotent stem cells in mice. Xu finds her involvement in these two simultaneous projects both challenging and satisfying, as they allow her exposure to both translational and basic science.

Despite her strong commitment to research, Xu is also determined to find the time in her schedule to continue to gain inspiration outside of the laboratory through her work with VIDA. She is currently working to organize another volunteer trip that is planned for next year. With her efforts, she hopes that more graduate students will be inspired to get involved and take part in the unforgettable experience (for more information on VIDA, please contact Xu at wenjun.xu@utoronto.ca).

Asked when she expects to finish her PhD, Xu smiles, “Hopefully in about three years.” Undoubtedly, the next three years for Xu will be as stimulating and exciting as the past three have been.