Westlake News PEOPLE

Danyang He: A Mother and Scientist

08, 2022

Email: zhangchi@westlake.edu.cn
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To get to know Prof. Danyang He, we should start with her research.

There is a well-known anecdote on hay fever. There was once a lady who was heavily allergic to pollen in Europe, so much so that she would develop symptoms at the sight of artificial flowers. How was the allergy triggered in the absence of allergens?

Some would approach it from a psychological perspective. By seeing an artificial flower, the lady thought she saw a real one and believed she was about to have an allergic reaction, which induced the real response. This seems to have a basis in reality: At war, injured soldiers from the losing side were more prone to die compared to their rivals; optimistic cancer patients tend to have a longer life expectancy.

How does our mental status affect our physical health? How does our physical health affect our mental status in turn? So few have investigated these two questions that the connection was deemed pseudoscience for a long time.

This vacuum of knowledge has given rise to a new interdisciplinary area: neuroimmunology. He witnessed its launch as she devoted herself to neuroimmunology in her postdoctoral work.

“Neuroimmunology is a new and cutting-edge research field that could shed light on many biological phenomena unknown to us before. Now, neurologists and immunologists around the world are trying to collaborate to analyze the network and mechanisms of the interaction between the nervous system and immune system. Thanks to that, neuroimmunology is booming.”

Her enthusiasm is echoed by her husband, Prof. Heping Xu. “All these years, if she came home beaming, no doubt it was because the experiment went well; if she came home feeling low, then it was a slow day at work.”

He agreed. The last time the experiment hit a dead end, she also brought the frustration home. When she woke up in the middle of the night, instead of going back to sleep, she started reading literature about a student’s research subject.

He carries an air of selflessness. Her mood changes with her work progress, and the excitement can last for a long time. “I don’t think I’d ever change my career path. I am only happy when I'm working on research or contemplating science,” she said.

Prof. Danyang He


Yet the excitement in an emerging field almost always comes with doubts and difficulty.

In 2019, He joined Westlake University with her research on neuroimmunology. At the beginning, she attended many conferences on neuroimmunology, where she found herself with groups of neurobiologists, immunologists, and very few neuroimmunologists, where they listened to each other’s research and tried to understand and learn their respective jargon.

She recalled one time, when a neurobiologist complained about the complexity of the grouping of immune cells and their markers. “The two fields each have their own jargon and challenges. Neurobiologists and immunologists care about different things, and use different methods to solve their problems,” He said.

A new research area means great risks for each research subject, and a lack of tools and references. Her team had to develop new tools from scratch; some efforts ended in vain, leading to more work to find and create the right ones.

Members of Prof. Danyang He’s lab

At He’s lab, one might hear such conversations:

He: We could make a hypothesis based on your findings, but we probably won’t find many previous studies to support it. Go ahead and give it a go. I won’t be able to tell you what lies ahead.

Student: Sure, we will take a stab at it. Most of our experiments are like this anyway.

He and her students choose to brave the uncertainty, knowing there will be challenges ahead. “We have a profound belief that neuroimmunology is worth our time, effort and resources. It may take a while, but it’s worth it.”

With risk comes opportunity. He’s team is already making groundbreaking discoveries in neuroimmunology. In October 2021, the teams of He and Xu made a joint discovery on a new method for B lymphocytes to undergo development and negative selection in the meninges, which was added to textbooks.

B cells are a type of immune cell in the human body that helps us resist the invasion of bacteria and viruses. Immunology textbooks had taught that B cells are developed and screened in the bone marrow for central tolerance. Their research proved that a B cell manufacturing mechanism existed in the brain, and further analyzed the regulatory mechanism of B cell development and tolerance in the meninges. The discovery helped to correct previous studies and offered new insight into the immune tolerance mechanisms in the brain.

Schematic diagram summarizing research on meningeal B lymphocyte development and negative selection


Yet behind the spotlight, some things are easily overlooked. A postdoctoral researcher left the team to move to where her husband worked – they were planning on having a child. She wasn’t sure if she could ever go back to science or her research. It was a decision that ate at her.

Sadly, this isn’t the exception. “This was a real thing that happened to someone that I knew. Very likely, such gender-based filtering happens to many.”

Lynne Elizabeth Maquat, winner of the 2021 Wolf Prize for Medicine, once compared the current academic world to a leaky funnel, where women were constantly filtered out during study at the master, doctoral, and postdoctoral levels. “This is a huge loss for science,” said Maquat. Globally speaking, female scientists are significantly underrepresented in STEM fields. In 2019, women only accounted for 29.3% of the global scientific researchers; in the Asia-Pacific region, the proportion dropped to 23.9%.

He said, “I don’t believe women have disadvantages in their capability to conduct scientific research, but I do believe that we face more pressure from society and family obligations. Science requires total devotion. While it is socially acceptable for a male scientist to spend day and night in the lab, we might not be as accommodating if the scientist was a woman. In our society, women find it harder to be understood. The conventional household obligations put female scientists under immense pressure.”

Female scientists find their path narrowed by prejudice, obstacles, and social pressure. Ben Barres, a well-known neurobiologist, would repeat three times at every academic conference he attended that male scientists should refrain from harassing their female counterparts or passing them notes. He, who attended one such conference, didn’t understand at the time why Barres emphasized this point.

Fast forward to 2019, when He attended an academic conference after returning to China. Customarily, the participants had dinner together afterward. It wasn’t common for women to attend such a high-level scientific forum. At the dinner table, a male colleague made a toast. He addressed the male participants as “teachers”, and singled out He as “the beauty”, a comment that made her feel very uncomfortable. “I was deeply offended, as if he unconsciously chose to see me as an amateur.”


Last year, He had a child. She now lives a double life as a mother and a principal investigator. Often, she finds herself facing a sexist question: “Do you still have time for research now that you're a mom?”

Indeed, there are real difficulties. 

He had a C-section on Feb. 10, 2021.

Merely 12 days later, she went back to work with her Ph.D. students and listened to their reports online. Her baby would be crying in the room next door.

By March, He had returned to her work in the lab.

Taking care of a newborn significantly affected her sleep, and her performance during the day also suffered. Sometimes, she noticed she was repeating herself at meetings due to fatigue. But still, He insisted on going to the office every day to help her students with the challenges that emerged in experiments and their daily work. One day, she was so tired she walked into the wrong building on her way home.

As life continues, difficulties turn into solutions. He is grateful for the help and understanding she has received from friends and family, allowing her to return to her passion. But she is also aware that many more female scientists don’t have the understanding from their family, the support from their husbands, a mature childcare system, or social tolerance. Very likely, they would be filtered out and forced to quit the path of research.

The Westlake Education Foundation launched the Westlake Female Scientists Development Program this March. Secretary General Minhao Liu said, “We initiated this project to support and motivate female scientists to follow their dreams. We hope to have them as role models and inspire more women to pursue science and realize their value.”