By Meghan Chua
A recent graduate from UW–Madison is among this year’s cohort of Schmidt Science Fellows, a prestigious program that seeks to develop the next generation of scientific leaders addressing the world’s most pressing problems.
Mengyao Niu earned her PhD in Microbiology in December 2020, but her journey at UW–Madison began with pursuing a bachelor’s degree in science.
Niu, who is originally from China, came to UW–Madison to study biology. She studied biochemistry as a major to gain the foundational knowledge she’d need to pursue biological research. Throughout her undergraduate study, she gained research experience in the lab of psychology professor Allyson Bennett in the Harlow Center for Biological Psychology. Professor Bennett’s training and support have shaped her long-term goal of being a scientist, Niu said.
“I got really good mentorship and training in doing science, but also started doing cross-interdisciplinary research with behavioral science, psychology, and immunology for my undergraduate senior thesis,” she said.
Meanwhile, Niu pursued a certificate in Global Health to understand how natural and social sciences affect human health in global settings. As part of the field experience required for the certificate, she traveled to Kenya to work with communities with high burdens of HIV, malaria, and tuberculosis and gained firsthand insights into the way that human societal factors, including gender inequalities and resource limitations, play a role in health outcomes.
This work with infectious diseases drew her scientific interests toward microbiology. After graduating with her bachelor’s degree, Niu continued as a PhD student in the Microbiology Doctoral Training Program working with Medical Microbiology & Microbiology and Bacteriology professor Nancy Keller.
“Dr. Keller gave me very exciting but also very challenging projects, so I had to learn to navigate through these intellectual challenges. Instead of being easily frustrated by the difficulties, fortunately, I became more engaged and persistent in solving them,” Niu said.
For her doctoral research, Niu studied a deadly fungal pathogen, a common household mold that can become problematic for people who are immunocompromised when they inhale the spores from the air. She examined the metabolic and genetic signals that control the growth and development of the fungus, which allow them to grow invasively in soil and in humans. This research has been published in Nature Communications. As part of her interest in engaging others with the science, Niu also wrote a thesis chapter explaining this research to non-specialists.
“My education in my undergraduate and graduate school made me embrace learning in a broad way,” Niu said. “A lot of learning happened beyond research and classroom, through talking with other students, engaging with other communities, and finding other important problems to solve.”
Niu found other student activities to get involved in, including co-hosting a campus-wide seminar on mentorship and women in science through the support of Women in Science & Engineering Leadership Institute (WISELI) and attending the Morgridge Entrepreneurial Bootcamp, which helped her think about creating technologies to improve quality of life.
During graduate school, she again traveled to Kenya for a science outreach and education project supported by a Baldwin Wisconsin Idea Endowment Seed Project Grant and a 4W Initiative Engagement Grant for Emerging Scholars. As part of the Health by All Means project, and along with Gender & Women’s Studies and School of Medicine and Public Health professor Araceli Alonso, Niu organized week-long science camps and taught women leaders and young girls from local communities about science and public health. One tool she used is called Foldscope, an affordable and portable paper microscope that allowed participants to look closely at cells on premade slides and observe their own samples collected in the surroundings.
“It was very exciting for me to see others get empowered by learning science. As a scientist, we have a really important responsibility to communicate our science to the public,” Niu said. These experiences, along with training she got from the Microbiology Doctoral Training Program (MDTP), were key in being a competitive candidate for the Schmidt Science Fellow’s program.
“MDTP has provided very rigorous research training for me, and very importantly, they are really good at supporting students. Throughout the program, the director and coordinator encourage students to pursue their own career trajectories,” Niu said. “We’re now in a world that with a PhD degree, we can imagine doing a lot of things. So, it’s important for graduate students to have those opportunities and make differences through a career they find most fulfilling.”
After graduation, Niu moved to the Boston area to work for the biotechnology company LifeMine Therapeutics, where she uses her expertise in fungal biology to discover human anti-cancer drugs. At the same time, she went through the application and interview process for Schmidt Science Fellows before being announced as a recipient in this year’s cohort.
The Schmidt Science Fellowship will allow Niu to pursue ambitious, high-risk (but potentially high-impact) research and further her interdisciplinary training. She’ll pivot from her focus on microbiology for her PhD to looking more broadly at human respiratory health.
Niu explained that respiration can be the fastest way for a pathogen to get from one person to another – something that we can appreciate more now after seeing the COVID-19 pandemic unfold. Like COVID-19, the flu, tuberculosis, and other fungal pathogens are also spread through the air. Through the program, Niu is excited to study chronic respiratory conditions like asthma and Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD).
“Together, these two chronic lung diseases affect close to a half a billion people worldwide and there is no cure for either of them.” Niu said. “There could be a lot of reasons for developing these diseases, including air pollution and smoking, but overall, the biological underpinnings are not very well understood. Deeper understanding of the biological factors would reveal more potential in curing these conditions.”
Chronic respiratory diseases are also a risk factor for acute respiratory infections, Niu added. With the Schmidt fellowship, she plans to use computational tools and biomedical engineering approaches to better understand how these conditions develop, which could ultimately lead to better prevention, diagnostic, and treatment strategies.
“I look forward to learning another research field and potentially doing more computational and engineering [work], having those in my toolkit for translational research that I’ll be doing for the long term,” Niu said. “And I’m especially excited to become a member of the Schmidt Science Fellow community.”
Many other Schmidt fellows come from interdisciplinary backgrounds and are pivoting to new directions in their research, Niu added, so she is particularly excited to continue learning from other members of this community. With support from the fellowship, she hopes to make an impact on human health and address equality to health.
“In the long term, I’d like to make communities more equal through the power of science and technology,” Niu said. “That is a really important mission for me.”