Long Road to Scientific Success
By Natalie van Hoose - Published December 10, 2014
Though his research has graced the covers of prestigious journals such as Nature and Cell, Purdue animal scientist Shihuan Kuang's beginnings were less auspicious. He grew up in a rural rice-farming community in the mountainous Jiangxi province of China, a village so poor that the children did not have toys.
"I just played in the mud with other boys," he says.
Kuang would watch trucks rumble down the highway that ran past his town and wondered what it would be like to hitch a ride to someplace bigger. Encouraged by his father, the principal of a local school, Kuang eventually took the highway to Nanchang University to study biology and, afterward, earned a master's in marine biology from the Chinese Academy of Sciences.
He spent a handful of years researching the growth of bay scallops before moving to the University of Alberta to pursue a doctoral degree in physiology and cell biology. There, he became a keen observer of the neural activity of pond snails, studying why snail larvae swam, why they stopped and how they responded to oxygen levels in the water.
"That was really interesting to me," he says. "We could identify the neurons controlling each behavior."
Kuang credits his diverse research background with helping him think about problems in innovative ways. His solution to low stem-cell survival rates after transplantation to human muscle tissue is a striking echo of the work he conducted on how oxygen levels affect the behavior of pond snails.
"A cell is like a small version of an animal," he says. "It has all the parts it needs to act as an independent unit. With my research background, it is natural that I'm thinking of all these different environmental cues. A good aspect of diversity in research is that it can help you make more connections."