Vanier Scholar Hong Lu finds his way in the details

Hong Lu, a PhD student in Dr. Ann Marie Craig's lab.

Hong Lu (pictured) is a hospital volunteer, avid pianist, neuroscience graduate student, and Vanier scholar. In Dr. Ann Marie Craig’s lab, he is a researcher studying synapse development in neuropsychiatric disorders including Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD) and schizophrenia; in the Purdy Pavilion at UBC Hospital, he connects with long-term care residents on a personal level. In 2017, he received a Student Volunteer Award from Vancouver Coastal Health for his service to patients.

Lu’s high school piano teacher was Rena Sharon, Professor of Collaborative Piano Studies in the UBC School of Music. While a student at University Hill Secondary, Lu sought out research opportunities in the labs of Dr. Yu Tian Wang and Dr. Garth Warnock, working on synaptic plasticity and gene therapies targeting pancreatic cancer, respectively. As an undergraduate student at UBC, he went on to split his love of science and music and his time between very different types of benches—while studying piano, he also conducted directed studies research in Dr. Catharine Rankin’s lab, using the classic genetic model C. elegans to study mechanisms of learning and memory.

“Studying piano with Rena was a privilege. She taught me that there was no creativity without prerequisite attention to the details. Science is a lot like that too,” said Lu. “In music and research, what you’re really doing is preparing for hours and hours to build on a body of work that you later take further and communicate to an audience.”

This week, Lu was awarded a Vanier scholarship for his project, characterizing the roles of synapse organizers in mediating synaptic function and brain-based diseases. Vanier scholars receive $50,000 per year for three years during doctoral studies; the awards are intended to support PhD students who demonstrate leadership skills and a high standard of scholarly achievement in their graduate studies.

"Hong is a gifted and highly motivated scientist," said Dr. Craig. "He has already contributed much towards understanding the basis of brain signaling, and developed a tremendously exciting thesis project with implications for neuropsychiatric disorders."

He began his master’s studies in Dr. Craig’s lab, but loved the work so much that he switched over to the PhD stream in 2017.

"Working in Dr. Craig’s lab is incredible, and I am blown away by how much there is to learn from her," he said. "She is very much driven by the unknown, and to be able to learn from her and develop as a researcher with her team is a tremendous opportunity."

For Lu, a career in research was almost inevitable. The biggest thrill of his time in the lab to date is not receiving prestigious awards or publishing in high-impact journals; it’s the "eureka" moment he had in collaborator Dr. Rachel Wong’s lab at the University of Washington while working with lead author Dr. Peng Zhang on three-dimensional reconstructions of wild-type and mutant dendrites (pictured below) for a recent Craig lab paper in the journal Cell.

Pictured: wild-type and model neurons showing connection points. When the glycan associated with neurexin is absent fewer connection points exist, impairing communication within the brain. Source: Dr. Ann Marie Craig / doi.org/10.1016/j.cell.2018.07.002.

“It was amazing how a simple modification of a sugar chain could result in such a change in neuronal communication,” said Lu. “I feel very grateful to have had the chance to collaborate with such supportive investigators like Rachel and to have experienced moments like these. Remembering how exhausted Peng and I were, and how that just seemed to evaporate when we finally saw those 3-D models. The discovery was possibly more exciting than when we heard our work was accepted for publication!”

For Lu, research offers the freedom to answer big questions. His work at UBC Hospital allows him to contextualize his basic science research; by working with people with dementia, or who are recovering from stroke, he has developed profound empathy for people with disorders of the brain. There, he has on occasion used his musical talents to bond with patients and to be present with people in recovery.

“Music offers the ability to connect with individuals on an emotional level,” said Lu. “Music reveals who we are, or who we used to be, and there’s empathy in that.”

Occasionally, Lu will visit the piano in the lower level of the Djavad Mowafaghian Centre for Brain Health and pick out a tune.

“I was thrilled the first time I heard Hong play,” said Dr. Jon Stoessl. “I suppose my biggest regret is that he plays Chopin way better than I could ever hope to!”

The Vanier Canada Graduate Scholarships and the Banting Postdoctoral Fellowships are funded through the three federal research granting agencies: the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR), the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC) and the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC). These ongoing programs are both administered through CIHR.

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