Race for the Cure
By Brittani Sonnenberg
It wasn't until high school, when he and a few friends built a small telescope from several lenses and a cardboard box, that Jiandie Lin fell in love with science. "Even though the telescope was very simple, there were twin stars you could observe with the lens that looked like one star without it," he said. "That was very beautiful."
Lin grew up in a tiny village in Southeastern China's Fujian Province, where he and his friends spent their free time playing in the thick jungle surrounding the village—picking wild fruits, mushrooms, and bamboo shoots. Lin's brilliant path as a scientist has taken him far from his hometown, which he described in an interview with a nostalgic gleam in his eye. "The village was very peaceful and rural. We had a local dialect that someone living in neighboring towns could not understand."
In the fifth grade Lin was sent to a boarding school in a nearby village, where his chemistry teacher and mentor recognized Lin's exceptional talents and entered him into a nationwide chemistry competition. Lin's success there and in subsequent classes granted him entrance to any Chinese university of his choice. At Peking University, Lin decided that he wanted to work with living things and switched his major from chemistry to biology. He moved to the United States in 1994, where he attended Northwestern University and worked with Daniel Linzer, Northwestern's current provost. Their studies revealed that the placenta in pregnant women makes hormones that tell the mother how to adjust her body for the development of the baby. The thrill of this research cemented Lin's direction: "I knew then that I wanted to do basic research that impacts human medicine."
Lin proceeded on to Harvard for his postdoc, where he worked with Bruce Spiegelman on the molecular mechanism of diabetes, specifically on a gene called PGC-1, which they identified as a critical factor that controls the activity of mitochondria, powerhouse of the cell. By expressing the gene as a transgene in mouse muscle, their studies found that you could increase mitochondrial content in muscle, and surprisingly, convert fast twitch muscles (used in exercise like weight lifting) to slow twitch muscles (used in endurance sports, like marathon running).
Subsequently, Lin created mice that lack PGC-1 and found that these mice develop neurodegeneration. These discoveries were published in Nature and Cell, and prompted a flurry of subsequent papers that implicated PGC-1 as a factor in Huntington's and Parkinson's disease. "That was very cool," Lin said.
Moving on to Michigan's Life Sciences Institute next was the natural choice, said Lin. "Here you can find colleagues studying biological questions using completely different tools. The interdisciplinary aspect was extremely attractive to me, which is generating the kind of interactions difficult to find in other places."
Outside of his lab work, Lin is an aficionado in the kitchen ("my best dish is a spicy Szechuan beef recipe") and a card shark ("there were a lot of poker parties when I was a postdoc.") Although science has led him across the world from his hometown, Lin still makes trips back to China and marvels at the changes. "Everyone in my village has a cell phone now—something unthinkable twenty years ago," he said.
As for future projects, Lin hopes to identify targets that scientists can make drugs against, and help develop new therapeutics. "For scientists, making discoveries is great," he explained. "But it will be ultimately satisfying to find something that can truly help people."