Prof. Wang (center) and her research group

The brain is made up of billions of neurons that are connected in a complex web of circuitry. To better understand what happens in the brain, scientists need tools to watch how these different circuits operate.

Assistant Professor Wenjing Wang is working with her team to develop molecular tools for viewing, and even modifying, the activity of particular neurons in the brain. They hope that these studies will help them understand how certain brain activity relates to observable behaviors.

Wang and her team are developing special transcription factors to watch brain activity. These transcription factors act like markers – tagging only certain neurons at a precise time point but in such a way that the marker can be viewed later when researchers have time to process the samples. Wang explains why this type of tool is important. “There are billions of neurons in the brain, and they all look very similar to their neighbors… but it’s a small subset of these neurons that make connections to the others and fire on top of each other during specific behavior.”

Wang and her team are not only studying what happens when neurons fire, but also what happens when they communicate by releasing certain chemicals, like dopamine, which can control anything from motor function to mood. Molecules called neuromodulators control the intensity of this chemical communication, which affects the future activity of individual neurons.

However, it is difficult to study how neuromodulators control communication because chemicals like dopamine have complex, longer-lasting effects on the brain.

“We all know that dopamine works on so many levels, so what we try to capture is whether we can dissect the circuitries for certain kinds of neuromodulators, “ Wang explains. “The tool we are designing can allow you to, let’s say, when you give a mouse a piece of cheese, see at this moment which neurons are being activated by dopamine.”

Launch meetings help new faculty settle in

During her first year as a faculty member, Wang has had support from some unique department resources at Michigan as she has established her independent laboratory. One helpful resource has been monthly launch committee meetings with the department head, two senior faculty members in her field, and one faculty member outside the department. In the meeting, Wang has the opportunity to ask whatever questions she has and to get advice. For her, “Everything is new so I can accumulate all the questions and ask them, and then they can give me different kinds of perspectives… which is so great!” In addition, as part of the Life Sciences Institute (LSI), Wang has access to several core centers that specialize in certain techniques, like drug screening, crystallography, or protein expression. She also cites LSI glass washing service as something her students appreciate!

People are key

But for Wang, the most important part of starting her lab was the people. She currently has three graduate students, two rotation students, a postdoctoral researcher, and a lab technician in the group. Seeing her students grow is one of the most rewarding things she’s experienced in her first year. Wang explains, “The students I recruited; they are really good. They are all now independent and already leading the projects they have – a couple projects – each of them.”

With a complete year at Michigan, Wang is excited about the future of her group. She is looking forward to animal studies, taking her group in new directions – like using nanobodies to study protein-protein interactions, and starting collaborations at Michigan and beyond. Wang finds that setting up the lab and starting to perform experiments has been immensely rewarding. “There are so many things that feel very, very rewarding mainly because everything is so challenging,” she emphasizes.