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Peking University interns dive into biophysics using nanotechnology

By Sage Wesenberg, Biochemistry and Journalism 2019

With the success of his first international internship student last year, Physics Professor Meni Wanunu is excited to welcome his second PhD student from Peking University in Beijing, China to his lab this September.

Physics PhD candidate Rui Hu of Peking University came to Wanunu’s Nanoscale Biophysics Lab in March 2016 to work in experimental biophysics. She came to his lab upon recommendation of her principle investigator (PI), Prof. Qing Zhao, in the Department of Physics at Peking University. This internship was made possible by the China Scholarship Council, whose purpose is to aid Chinese students in studying abroad to further their education and develop international relationships. Through this, Hu, and incoming student Xiaoqing Li, could be funded to live and work in Boston for a six-month period.

“I seek these opportunities because I really value having different people come in with different backgrounds, they always have something to add to the group in various ways. And for me and my lab, it’s ended up working out really well,” Wanunu noted. Hu was so successful that Wanunu extended her internship to allow her to complete more research.

Through her time in the lab, Hu worked diligently to collect data up until the very day she left. Her work focused on studying protein conformations using nanotechnology. Overall, the Nanoscale Biophysics Lab is interested in single-molecule measurements in experimental biophysics. Research includes looking at the structure, function, and dynamics of many biological molecules including the proteins on which Hu focused. They do all of this through the use of synthetic nanopores, which are essential in determining the shape of different biological molecules. In addition to proteins, the Wanunu lab is working on using its nanotools to sequence DNA/RNA molecules, as well as to identify tertiary structures of RNA.

“This internship allows students to get a different perspective on research. When Rui came, she got so much support here from my group and was able to hit the ground running. She was able to do really well and her hard work has certainly paid off,” Wanunu said.

Now back in China, Hu will complete her PhD at Peking University within the next year, and is working on writing and publishing several papers based on her research and collaborations at Northeastern.

Wanunu is looking forward to having new student, Xiaoqing Li, join his lab from Peking University. While her research focus has not been finalized, she will certainly be working with nanopores, and will likely move onto developing an RNA profiling and/or sequencing application. Currently, RNA is sequenced indirectly, by converting it to complementary DNA (cDNA). While this process works, there are many modifications and epigenetic markers on the RNA that are lost, which results in a biased RNA profile. Wanunu hopes that his lab can work on sequencing RNA directly through the nanopores, and Li may potentially pioneer some of this research.

Wanunu speaks very highly of this partnership, and hopes that Northeastern can expand it to provide more international experiential learning for many students. “I think the experiential PhD direction, similar to the co-op program, is a great direction to go into, and it should be bilateral – accepting visiting PhD students from excellent institutions, in addition to sending our students to great experiences around the globe.”

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