Herman Fung standing in front of an Aquilos 2 sample preparation system

Meet the new U-M faculty member exploring DNA's dynamic organization in 3D

Five questions with Assistant Professor Herman Fung

Herman Fung, Ph.D., recently joined the University of Michigan as an assistant professor in the Department of Cell & Developmental Biology and a research assistant professor at the Life Sciences Institute. His new research program will use advanced microscopy techniques to visualize and investigate the dynamic organization of DNA within cells. 

In the following interview, he discusses the development of his scientific career — from an undergraduate student in Australia, to a graduate student in the United Kingdom, through a postdoctoral fellowship in Germany — and plans for his new lab at U-M. Answers have been edited for clarity and length.

When did you first know you wanted to be a scientist?

I was always interested in the sciences going through school. I enrolled into a science bachelor's degree program, but at that point, I was keeping my options open. The tipping point was when I got to work part-time in a research lab during my undergrad years. That really sparked my interest in research. The lab specialized in structural biology and biophysics, and we were investigating how proteins and nucleic acids all interact together to create function in the cell. I found that fascinating, and I just kept going down that direction. I decided to pursue a Ph.D., which took me to the U.K., and it’s just snowballed from there.

So, following undergraduate research in biophysics and structural biology, how did you find your way into this rapidly evolving field of cryo-electron microscopy and tomography?

The proteins I worked on in my Ph.D. also form complexes with DNA to function. My initial training was in X-ray crystallography. But even then, it was already becoming clear that cryo-EM was a more effective technique for resolving the structure of multi-subunit complexes. So I embarked on a collaboration that gave me the opportunity to travel to the U.S. to perform cryo-EM. And then, of course, the structural biology field continued to develop — cryo-ET emerged as a way to see structures inside cells. I moved to EMBL in Germany for my postdoctoral research, and that’s where I began applying and developing cryo-ET for structural discoveries.

I consider myself to be a basic scientist. I enjoy using many different approaches to answer one question. The fundamental questions that we try to answer as biologists have not really changed; but now there are just all these amazing tools that we can use to answer them in new ways. 

What types of questions do you hope to address in your lab at U-M?

In broad strokes, we want to apply cryo-ET to understand how a genome is organized in 3D in the cell, and how that impacts gene regulation. We will complement cryo-ET with single-particle cryo-EM to generate mechanistic insights and with cell biology to start forming and testing hypotheses of how our genome is organized.

With cryo-ET, you see where things distribute in the cell; but you may not know where exactly protein domains are pointing and which side chains are interacting with each other. For such atomic-level detail, this is where single-particle cryo-EM really shines. We can then use that detailed information to think about how particular protein–DNA interactions can be perturbed, for example.

Your scientific education and training have taken you all over the world. What drew you to the University of Michigan now? 

I would start by saying it's really a privilege that being a scientist has allowed me to travel around the world and pursue the research that I’m passionate about. It's an opportunity that I'm very grateful for.

What drew me to Michigan is really the amazing community. My research sits at the interface of structural biology and developmental biology. So with the strength of the EM program at the LSI and the excellent Department of Cell and Developmental Biology at the Medical School, this is the perfect home for me to be able to do this research. 

As you launch your own research independent program here, what are you most excited about?

I'm most excited about doing the research that I am very passionate about while having an awesome, diverse team of people to work with and push questions forward together, and at the same time to also see people develop. Because that's, I think, a huge part of the mission of being a PI — we get to train the newer generation of scientists. 

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