2014-2015 DSC_6095

Published on February 24th, 2015 | by Sonya Kim


Johnathan Lau, 4th Year Major

Johnathan is a 4th year Immunology Major student currently working in the labs of Dr. George Fantus and Dr. Jinrong Min.

How did you get your current research position?
I applied for the 2nd year ROP299H1 course in Physiology which led me to join Dr. Min’s lab at the Structural Genomics Consortium (SGC). I was fortunate enough to have independence in the lab which led me to conduct structural studies on Thioredoxin-Interacting Protein (TXNIP) since it showed high potential as a therapeutic target for many diseases. I then applied to Dr. Fantus’ lab and carried my knowledge over to get more involved with TXNIP and its role in diabetic nephropathy (inflammation!)

Could you give us a quick overview of what your project is about?
In Dr. Min’s lab we conducted protein crystallographic studies and discovered a novel structural ‘left-right’ switching mechanism by which TXNIP chooses its binding partners. This gives scientists new insight into the regulatory pathways of TXNIP. In Dr. Fantus’ lab I discovered novel conserved motifs in TXNIP that are also found in the alpha-arrestin family of proteins, so I wanted to see if they were evolutionarily important by creating mutants in those motifs, and packaging these mutations into adenoviral vectors. By doing so, we discovered specific abrogations of TXNIP’s usual binding partners, which gave us new clues on TXNIP’s molecular mechanisms.

What’s your favourite thing about your project?
Serendipitously, I chose to work with a protein that I read about in an article in my 2nd year that has taken me on this incredible journey. I wanted to learn more about TXNIP and its disease implications, but beyond that I wanted to see if I could contribute to the global scientific community, so I had to really jump into the scientific environment by effectively communicating, collaborating, criticizing, presenting and writing!

How has your research experience influenced your future plans?
After 2.5 years of playing in lab environments I truly have discovered a passion for scientific communication and writing. To be honest, I prefer to be in lab meetings, conferences, and at home writing manuscripts than at the lab bench. I find that my strengths align that way — and that’s okay! I believe everyone has different strengths and weaknesses, and that we need to be honest with ourselves to be truly happy with the work we’re doing, as well as flourish in the niches we choose to grow in.

Do you have other research experience as well?
I wrote a mini-review on the pharmacogenomics of Efavirenz – an antiretroviral drug used to treat HIV infection for a course (CSB349H1), and I drew a cute little metabolome on MS Paint and everything. After the course, I thought to myself: “I shouldn’t let this information go to waste”, so I Googled ‘pharmacogenomics databases’ and found PharmGKB, and I submitted my work. Lo and behold, the database was run by a Stanford lab and they invited me to write for their actual review paper on Efavirenz! I spent the next year improving, discussing, editing, revising multiple times, and now we’ve published the review together! All of the scientific communication was done online as well — what an awesome world we live in! It was this experience that made me discover my love of writing.

Are you involved in other activities outside the lab?
I am currently the Co-President of the Immunology Students Association, along with Karen Jia. I have also delved into artistic pursuits: writing poetry (that I want to publish!), photography, drawing, etc. I also volunteer in my community and thoroughly enjoy attending Reiki meditation circles as they help get my mind off stress.

Who’s your favourite scientist?
There are many scientists that have inspired me and have allowed for me (and you) to stand on their shoulders, but the one that has truly inspired me personally was Dr. Carl Sagan. He wasn’t a Nobel Prize winner or even a scientist in the biomedical field, but what he did have was his way with words – scientific communication to the highest exponent. To me, he was the biggest popularizer of science because of his ability to convey complex theories so simplistically – even children could understand him. Moreover, he portrayed the scientific endeavor as a fundamentally human one, and taught me to think about the cosmic perspective and how folly some of our actions are on our planet. He published >600 scientific papers, >20 books (popular science and science fiction), lectured at multiple universities, and hosted his own television show in the 1980s (Cosmos: A personal voyage), which led to the 2014 remake. Hands down, Dr. Sagan is definitely one of my biggest role models.

Do you have any advice for students looking for research positions?
I gave the Undergraduate Research Application seminar in November 2013/2014 and you can always check the slides we have uploaded on our website! Other than that, FOLLOW YOUR PASSIONS!

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