This story was written as part of the Djavid Mowafaghian Centre for Brain Health 2019/2020 annual report. You can read the full report here. 

Hong Lu was always interested in studying the brain. After completing his undergraduate degree at UBC, he decided to take a year to explore how he could further his interest. During this time, he began volunteering in Dr. Ann Marie Craig’s lab.

“From the beginning, the lab’s energy was different, and it was exciting to be around people who thought about science all the time,” says Lu. “Back then, there were a lot more postdocs than graduate students, so I always felt like I had to earn my spot. I feel like that pushed me to be a better researcher.’”

Lu started his master’s in the Craig lab the following year and by 2017, he loved the work so much he switched over to the PhD stream. His project involves looking at highrisk mutations that are involved in the genetic pathways of Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD) and schizophrenia. Specifically, he studies how these mutations functionally and morphologically affect the brain.

The first part of his project aims at gaining a better understanding of the mechanisms behind these mutations—in other words, figuring out what is happening at the protein level, and how this relates to autism and schizophrenia symptoms. The second part of Lu’s work is to find a therapy that will treat the deficits observed as a result of these mutations.

In 2019, Lu was awarded a Vanier Scholarship, which is $50,000 per year for three years, with the intent of supporting PhD students who demonstrate leadership skills and a high standard of scholarly achievement in their graduate studies.

“Working in Dr. Craig’s lab has been very rewarding,” says Lu. “She’s very good at knowing when to push your potential and when to remind you to not be too hard on yourself. Scientifically, there is still much to learn from her.”

Lu says one of the biggest thrills of his time in the lab was not receiving prestigious awards or publishing in high impact journals. Instead, it was a 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 neurons for a paper in the journal Cell.

“We were using electron microscopy to look at the effects of a post-translational modification on an ASD risk gene and it was amazing how a simple modification of a sugar chain could result in such a robust change in neural structure,” said Lu. “Peng and I were exhausted after having spent every waking moment working for almost a month. But it was a powerful moment when we finally saw those 3D models. I don’t think we said much, we just sat there for a really long time. That was probably more exciting than when we heard our work was accepted for publication!”

Outside of the lab, Lu enjoys playing piano and violin, and hopes to make it to Poland one day to visit the old stomping grounds of his favourite composer, Chopin. Lu is also co-president of the Neuroscience Graduate Student Association and co-editor of Neuropsyched, a digital magazine created by UBC neuroscience students.

“There’s so much that I’ve enjoyed about my time at UBC as a graduate student,” says Lu. “I feel like the community of trainees is close knit, and I really enjoy that aspect of the Graduate Program in Neuroscience.”