In the highly competitive field of scientific research, vying for funding is a difficult task. Groundbreaking developments come with a price tag—and those are exactly what the National Institutes of Health’s (NIH) New Innovator Award funds. As part of NIH’s High-Risk, High-Reward Research program, the grant allocates money for the brightest minds to push forward cutting-edge research. Jia Niu, an assistant professor in the Boston College chemistry department, is one of the recipients of this year’s award.
The NIH is one of the world’s most prominent medical research centers, and it offers more public grant money for biomedical research than any other organization. Specifically, the NIH’s High-Risk, High-Reward Research program targets scientists conducting extremely creative, unprecedented research that, if successful, will have far-reaching results.
Additionally, because of this kind of research’s inherent risk, it often fails to receive the recognition it deserves within the mainstream scientific community. By receiving the New Innovator Award, these scientists, including Niu, are given the funds to continue pursuing their original experimentation.
“This unique mechanism provided by NIH is specifically targeting people like myself,” Niu said. “We’re early-stage investigators who have just started their research careers.”
Looking back on his success, Niu emphasized the long journey fueled by a love of chemistry and creativity that led him to where he is today. He was born in Shijiazhuang, China. Growing up, Niu’s love of and immediate success in science was unique compared to his classmates, who mostly preferred subjects in the arts.
Niu said that even after about science extensively in school, many of his classmates chose to take different career paths, usually in finance or the arts. He said he believes it was this contrast between him and his peers that first gave him the opportunities to begin conducting high-level research.
Today, Niu largely credits his success in chemistry to his middle school teacher who initially motivated him to participate in the Chinese Chemistry Olympiad. Before partaking in the competition, Niu had dreamed of being a physicist when he grew up, but after placing second, he decided to pursue his talent for chemistry instead.
After graduating from high school, Niu attended Tsinghua University, where his interest in chemistry developed further. During his first year at the university, he attended a lecture that he now considers to be pivotal in motivating his interest in the type of research he does today.
In the lecture, Hermann Staudinger, a Nobel Prize winner, talked about the relationship between synthetic polymers and biopolymers. Staudinger’s topic of interest was thought-provoking and inspiring to Niu.
By acquiring more knowledge about both man-made and completely natural polymers, Staudinger hoped to be able to regulate their function. After that day, Niu was captivated by the potential to change the world with the ability to modulate polymers. Polymers are large man-made macromolecules of similar molecular units bonded together.
“At that time, I was thinking, ‘Wouldn’t it be cool if we can actually learn from nature and apply some of the principles in biopolymers to synthetic polymers?’” Niu said. “Only after that point, I learned all these important issues for the environment, such as how to make these plastics to be able to degrade in nature.”
After obtaining a bachelor’s degree in chemistry from Tsinghua University, Niu’s desire to become involved in research led him to move to the United States and attend graduate school at Harvard University.
There, Niu worked with the Liu Research Lab under renowned scientist David Liu.
“My training with him was focused on this unique type of chemistry that takes inspiration from ribosomal translation, mainly the biological process of making proteins,” Niu said. “Nature uses a nucleic acid, RNA, as a template which encodes all the information about the protein. Then, ribosomes translate the genetic code of RNA into proteins.”
The Liu lab expanded its research to see if this specific process could be replicated in synthetic polymers. The team sought to discover the precise formula to use to achieve this goal and again looked to mimic already existing biological processes.
Sequences determine the function of all proteins found in nature and allows them to more complexly self-replicate and assemble. One of the Liu lab’s main accomplishments was introducing sequence into synthetic polymers too.
“Using a nucleic acid as a template, we designed an independent and self-assembling system,” said Niu.
The ability to create this new method of translation without relying on ribosomes gave scientists the capacity to take DNA and turn it into synthetic polymers—without any supplemental enzymes. Doing this gave them the control to create synthetic molecules that can divide on their own, something that previously only nature-made biopolymers were able to do.
The research Niu did with the Liu lab at Harvard led him to conduct his own research at BC in 2015, and he is the head and founder of the Niu Research Group.
At BC, Niu’s lab team focuses on designing synthetic large and functional molecules that are modeled after biopolymers—substances with molecular structures of similar units bonded together that were originally created from living organisms. This is the topic he plans to continue studying with his new grant from the NIH.
“We take nature’s ability to program sequence-specific interactions between molecules and a polymer, which in this particular case, is DNA,” Niu said about his work. “In a research direction that’s funded by NIH, we want to specifically and programmably target DNA and the guiding molecules of life.”
Niu and his team are currently investigating how to integrate Crispr, a genomic editor with gene-recognition capabilities, to achieve their goal.
The Crispr machine works through taking an RNA molecule that recognizes a specific gene molecule and then using that interaction to target and edit the particular DNA sequence that relates to the gene. The machine’s value is in its ability to allow scientists to deliver their chemistry to exactly the spot they want to target, Niu said.
His team’s current idea to successfully achieve a new form of genomic sequence editing integrates his Ph.D. work in how to design an RNA molecule, the Crispr machinery, and finally, aptamers—molecules with the ability to bind to other specific target molecules in the cell.
“One part of it all will be recognizing the DNA, the other part will be the aptamer that would recognize the other protein components in the cell,” Niu said.
This is a technological feat that would have an unprecedented impact on biochemistry by allowing scientists to edit human genetics by either changing the sequence code of the DNA or removing mutated sequence all together. The ability to do this would solve certain genetic disorders.
Chao Liu, a graduate student who is a part of the Niu lab team, said that the work the team is currently doing, especially with this particular project, will extend the polymer research effect to much farther than just the scientific community.
“We not only work for the scientific community, but also for the broader community as we try to give back to it,” he said.
Niu has already been a member of successful lab teams as a researcher, but through this recently received New Innovation Award grant, he will continue to lead his own team and ultimately reach new forefronts of discovery in the process. Niu said that, without funding by programs such as NIH, it may have been hard for scientists like him to continue their research.
These particular form of research, however, may be the key to unlocking some of the biggest mysteries that captivate the scientific community today and facilitating great biochemical advancements in the future.
“NIH has recognized the capability of this young group, where we tend to take more risks and work on more creative things,” Niu said. “NIH wants to encourage this out-of-the-box, high-risk but high-reward kind of project.”
Niu said that the importance of this type of research is simple and profound. Its main goal is to help other people. From Niu’s perspective, environmental and human health problems are the most vital to address in terms of their global impact. Niu said he believes it’s the job of chemists and scientists to introduce new technology that is focused on the well-being of society.
“When I’m trying to decide which direction of research we should go to as a lab, I always ask myself, ‘What are the most important problems that humankind are facing?’” Niu said.
A particular example of a new topic Niu hopes to study more thoroughly in the future involves the complex interplay between genes in the gene network. Specifically, he hopes his lab can focus one path of its research on better understanding cancer stem cells.
Niu hopes that through fully understanding cancer cells and their role in the gene network, he and his lab will gain some of the fundamental understanding needed to look at how these particular cells are able to develop resistance to modern medicine and drugs so quickly.
Niu and his research team have a bright future ahead of them, with the capability to change many people’s lives. He expressed both gratitude for and confidence in the students who work in his lab. Niu said that, without their dedication, it would be incredibly difficult to build a strong program and pursue academic achievements. Once a student himself, Niu recognizes the value of his both his research team and young scientists all around the world.
“This is also very entertaining to me, this kind of process,” he said. “You get to see the younger generation, you’re working with them, and you’re basically learning constantly from them.”
The honor of the New Innovator Award demonstrates Niu’s success as a chemist, a biologist, and also a professor in integrating the most important topics of science and learning into his own life, as well as the lives of his students.
Nevertheless, it wasn’t long ago that Niu sat in a lecture hall, listening to Staudinger’s lecture that would one day catalyze his own work. Looking back on his entire journey, from the Chinese Chemistry Olympiad to the New Innovator Award, he has one main piece of advice for aspiring scientists of the future.
“Be brave, and always jump out of the box,” Niu said. “Doing science is about making breakthroughs. Doing science is about doing something that has never been done before. … That’s the only way we can advance.”
Photo Courtesy of Maggie DiPatri / Heights Editor