Westlake News PEOPLE

Novice Researchers Behind Breakthrough Publication in ‘Cell’

02, 2022

Email: zhangchi@westlake.edu.cn
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Not long ago, Prof. Shang Cai's team from Westlake's School of Life Sciences made an important breakthrough in the field of breast cancer research, confirming for the first time the existence of a variety of unique intracellular bacteria in breast cancer tissue and revealing their role in metastasis.

While many know of this publication, few may realize that the co-first authors of the paper are Bingqing Yao, a 2018 Ph.D. student, and Tingting Dong, a 2019 Ph.D. student, and both came directly to Westlake after finishing their undergraduate education.

It only took more than three years for them to go from being novice researchers to getting published in a top journal.

What happened in these three years? How were they able to progress so fast? We went to Prof. Cai's laboratory to find out.

Meet the Ph.D. Students

Pictured, from left, are Tingting Dong and Bingqing Yao.

Yao is a round-faced girl who loves to laugh very much. She graduated from Harbin Medical University with a bachelor's degree in clinical pharmacy, and visited Westlake for the first time during her senior year.

Dong, on the other hand, is a little more prudent and doesn't talk much. She graduated from the University of Electronic Science and Technology of China with a bachelor's degree in biotechnology and participated in the summer camp at Westlake during her junior year.

While the two have completely different personalities, they get along well together when working on a topic because they are like-minded.

When entering university as an undergraduate, Yao chose the clinical pharmacy major because of illness in her family and her admiration of doctors. Dong, who was admitted to the biotechnology major by accident, had always wanted to study medicine and learn to cure the sick and save lives.

Why Westlake? President Yigong Shi


President Yigong Shi gives a lecture.

We have asked many people why they chose Westlake, but Yao smiled and said, without a moment's hesitation, "Because of Yigong Shi!"

Most biology students in China have heard of him, and then they become curious about and interested in Westlake.

Why Prof. Cai? His Interesting Idea

Pictured, from left, are the main team members involved in the publication: Tingting Dong, Bingqing Yao, Prof. Shang Cai, and Aikun Fu.

What interested them in Prof. Cai was his unusual idea -- to explore whether there are bacteria in tumors and their role in cancer.

The difference is that Yao, who wanted to do basic scientific research, took the initiative to reach out online, and found Prof. Cai, who was very interested in her. At that time, Prof. Cai had not returned to China, but through email, he and Yao resonated with each other in terms of scientific research.

Dong, meanwhile, met Prof. Cai during a meeting at the Westlake summer camp. She wanted to do oncology and was very interested in experiments. She was also attracted by Prof. Cai's area of research.

At that time, Prof. Cai was promoting his idea, hoping to find excellent people to join his team.

Never Thought of Doing Something Big


Tingting Dong is pictured in the laboratory.

Do you think they stepped into Westlake with a grand blueprint for success?

The truth is, these two students relied on their natural instincts and enthusiasm. "If you want to learn how to do scientific research, it's as simple as that!"

They didn't even make a careful plan for publishing papers.

When they joined Prof. Cai's team, the two had just finished their undergraduate studies and possessed very limited laboratory experience. "At that time, in many respects, we were novices in scientific research," they admitted frankly.

"After countless failures, I finally saw that the combination of antibiotics had an effect. At that moment, I realized that we were doing something of great significance -- that this research is likely to succeed and change something!" Dong said.

From then on, she began to become more conscious of doing big things, and felt the pressure.


No Great Difficulty in the Research


Pictured, from left, are Tingting Dong and Bingqing Yao.

When the team was devising a rigorous approach to prove the existence of bacteria in tumors, followed by the raising and reproduction of mice as model organisms, and later the use of antibiotics to specifically remove bacteria, things did not go well initially.

Yao still remembers when the project was launched. "Although we were all interested, we couldn't start. I was reading the literature in the first few months, but the relevant information I could find was pitiful!"

Dong said that through this experience, she learned to reconcile with failure.

"Many times the results are very different from what we expected. Experiments that you think are difficult are unexpectedly successful after doing them twice. Everything is unknown."

So, what's the final conclusion?

"Actually, it's all good. It's like fighting monsters to level up. It takes a little more time and a little more failure to overcome a big problem."

The concept of "time" here is like this: "We usually arrive at the laboratory at 8 in the morning, and stay until 11 or 12 in the evening, depending on the progress of the experiment."

Never Thought of Failure

Bingqing Yao shares her recent achievement with interested students.

When this topic exploring whether bacteria will affect the metastasis of tumors was launched, the existence of bacteria in tumors wasn't even confirmed. Didn't the students worry about failure?

"Not at all!" said Yao and Dong, shaking their heads at the same time.

"In the case of failure, at worst we'd have to start all over again. There is always something to gain through thinking in the early exploration stage, and the progress and growth in the experimental stage. As long as the foundation is there, don't worry."

There is less of an adult's "looking forward and backward" cautiousness, and a little more drive and courage among these students.

Advisor Helped Them Relax

Prof. Shang Cai (far left) is pictured with some members of his team.

When speaking of their advisor, both students laughed!

Prof. Cai is well-known at Westlake for being good-natured.

He leads his students to think and ask scientific questions, assigns homework, and answers questions. And when experiments fail, he comforts them often.

Also, he is super calm.

Yao was left with a deep impression of Prof. Cai's personality in 2020, when the Weizmann Institute of Science published a paper confirming that bacteria are also a component of cancer itself, and are present in a wider range of cancers beyond colorectal. These other researchers had already made the conclusion Yao and Dong were aiming at in their research. "It's just that Prof. Cai thought it wasn't important enough. He told us, ‘You should continue to do it, and not rush to publish papers.'"

Then, they restrained their restless hearts and continued the work.

Dong said that they didn't know when to start, but they seemed to find a way and began to have their own ideas.

In the journey of scientific research, having your own thoughts and ideas is the greatest wealth.

'Too Excited' Over Publication

Bingqing Yao is pictured in the laboratory.

"We were not just a little excited -- we were too excited."

Although the news had already been expected, Yao was still very excited when she learned during the Chinese New Year holiday that the paper was accepted. "My parents saw my expression and asked if something good had happened!"

This was their first thesis after entering Westlake, the first time they had participated in the whole scientific process, and the first time they had clearly felt the power and significance of research.

A set of pipette controllers and experimental notebooks marked with the students' names are on an experimental bench, where their achievement first began and was completed. This same place in the lab also witnessed their many ups and downs throughout the process.

Bingqing Yao (center) is seen performing a group dance titled "Red Horse".

But there's more to these young students than just their research, as witnessed by Yao, who recently dressed up to participate in an evening music festival, performing a group dance titled "Red Horse".

She exchanged the pipette controller from her lab for a silk fan, and appeared calm and confident, as the young power of Westlake danced lightly across the stage.