Exceptional Thesis Award 2015

By Holly Cho, CMB Graduate Student
Shang Ma

When Shang Ma, the 2015 recipient of the CMB Exceptional Thesis Award, first joined Dr. Zhen Huang’s lab in the Neuroscience Department, his path to success was anything but certain. He was entering his third graduate research lab, after a leave of absence made necessary after having joined and left two successive labs. This was, as Dr. Huang will readily admit, not the usual resume that would convince a PI to take on a new student. But Shang’s journey had given him an unusual asset – his conviction.

Shang was born and raised in Beijing, where he grew up knowing he wanted to pursue science. After completing a bachelor’s degree in Canada, he came to UW-Madison, attracted by its long tradition of training top researchers in the life sciences, and the flexible, student-oriented approach to curriculum that is valued by the CMB program. But as many young PhD students know, things rarely proceed as expected in graduate school, and Shang found himself on a leave of absence with no lab to call home.

During those months away from the university, he was forced to reflect on what drew him to science, and whether he wished to continue with graduate school. He realized that he truly loved the feeling of discovery, and that he felt that “science is a way to make people suffer less and live better.” He decided he was young enough to deserve another chance, and contacted Dr. Zhen Huang with an interest in joining his research group.

Shang returned to science with a newly mature attitude, realistic expectations, and the certitude of someone who had nearly let an opportunity slip through his fingers – ready to turn “a bad experience into a positive power.” During his rotation, he was determined to make up for lost time, and his dedication and work ethic were very apparent to Dr. Huang, as he came to the lab and worked hard every day, including weekends.

Shang’s work in the Huang Lab involved the use of mouse models to study brain development. His thesis research began with the discovery that a mutant in which neural progenitor cell division was genetically blocked did not have “dramatic neural abnormalities”, but unexpectedly, had disruptions in the vascular pattern in the developing brain. It became clear that neural progenitor cells have crucial roles in stabilizing blood vessels during development. During his time in the lab, he published three first-author papers detailing the molecular network regulating this developmental pathway as well as additional neuromuscular interactions.

When asked what he believed contributed to his eventual success despite his rocky start, Shang responded, “Ironically, one advantage of being a dropout (nearly) was that I came back to graduate school with a more mature attitude and developed a more efficient way of doing things.” He was also modest in taking credit for his achievements, saying, “I think that I was productive as a student, but this is thanks to my advisor Zhen, who encouraged me to start with simple experiments, followed by patient data collection and careful analysis.”

In response to the same question, Dr. Huang said “he has good instincts… but another factor of his success was his persistence, both in the time he spent in the lab as well as the time he spent digging into questions.”

Shang has received an award of $250, and his name has been added to a plaque that hangs in Bock Laboratories, where the CMB program is headquartered. He is now working as a post-doc with Dr. Ardem Patapoutian, an HHMI Investigator at the Scripps Research Institute, where he is studying mechanotransduction. He hopes to eventually contribute to science as an independent PI. With his experience, focus, and determination to succeed, it seems certain that Shang will be able to achieve great things in science – the road is finally clear.