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‘The future of research benefits from diversity:’ Faculty Spotlight With Liming Pei, PhD
Editor's Note: Welcome to our monthly Faculty Spotlight series, in which we sit down with faculty members at Children's Hospital of Philadelphia Research Institute to learn more about their research and roles. Through these spotlights, our readers meet the diverse, dedicated, and distinctive individuals who lead our research community in our mission to improve children's health. It's a new round of spotlights, and this time, we're asking our featured scientists about how they encourage diversity, equity, and inclusion within their labs. In this Q&A, we meet Liming Pei, PhD, investigator in the Department of Pathology and Laboratory and the Pei Laboratory. Stay tuned for more from our Faculty Spotlight series throughout this year!
How long have you been at CHOP, and can you tell us about your research specialty?
I came to CHOP in 2013 to start my research lab after postdoctoral training at the Salk Institute in San Diego. It's been nine years, and it's been a pleasure and a privilege.
The overall theme of my lab is to understand how different organs react to energy cues and communicate with each other to maintain whole-organism homeostasis in both physiological and pathological contexts. We focus on two main areas under this theme.
The first is cardiac endocrinology, a new field of study of heart-derived hormones in physiology and disease. The second area is to use single cell technology to gain new insight into mitochondrial and cardiac biology and disease. We use a broad spectrum of approaches from unbiased discovery using single cell multiomics and chemical biology, to hypothesis generation with advanced data analysis. We leverage cell and animal models for experimental validation and employ molecular biology, cell biology, and genomics techniques to uncover novel mechanistic understanding.
Why did you choose to focus on that specialty?
It is said that curiosity is the best teacher. Our research is definitely driven by our curiosity and desire to understand the unknown. For example, our investigation into why both humans and mice with congenital heart disease often exhibit whole body growth retardation, clinically known as failure to thrive, led us to the discovery that the failing heart secretes a protein called GDF15 as a hormone to inhibit pediatric body growth.
As very few heart-derived hormones are known, we decided to identify novel heart-derived hormones and understand their biology and function. We refer to this new area of research as cardiac endocrinology. In addition, our desire to understand exactly which cells in the heart are secreting hormones drove us toward applying single cell genomics to study cardiac biology and disease.
Our wonderful colleagues and the great environment at CHOP and the University of Pennsylvania also shape our research. Over the years, we have collaborated with both basic scientists and physicians. These collaborations not only propelled the success of ongoing research projects but also often led us into new and unexpected research directions.
Can you describe a current or recent research project (or projects) that you are excited about?
I am particularly excited about our studies of cardiac endocrinology. We recently applied a new technology called proximity labelling to label most heart-secreted proteins in vivo in an unbiased fashion. Coupled with mass spectrometry studies to identify these labeled proteins in the blood serum, this allows us to identify systemically new potential heart-secreted hormones. This project is supported by the American Heart Association through an Established Investigator Award. Some additional current projects in the lab include using single-cell technology to build a multidimensional atlas of the human heart to study the impact of aging on human mitochondrial genome, and to understand and treat mitochondrial disease.
What are the long-term research questions you hope to answer?
In the next five to 10 years, we want to identify new heart-secreted hormones, study their biology, and determine their functional importance in physiology and disease. These studies will firmly establish the heart as an important endocrine organ. We also want to gain new insights into mitochondrial and cardiac diseases, with the hope of identifying new therapeutic targets. For the long-term, we hope to have a chance to translate these new findings into novel therapies for human diseases. I envision that our long-term questions will continue to be driven by our curiosity and desire to understand the unknown.
How do you support diversity, equity, and inclusion among your research team?
I firmly believe that enhancing diversity, equity, and inclusion is a fundamental mission of our educational and research enterprise. Overall, I endeavor to create a supportive and inclusive lab environment where everyone is provided with equal opportunities to get involved, be recognized and be appreciated. I strongly believe that everyone in the lab should have their perspectives heard and valued.
We have a diverse research team, and we host summer students from diverse backgrounds through an NIH-sponsored Summer Student Internship Program in Biomedical Research. We are very excited that postdoctoral fellows from underrepresented backgrounds are joining us through the CHOP Gateway to Pediatric Research Program, which introduces CHOP researchers and faculty to promising senior graduate students and junior postdoctoral fellows. The future of research will benefit from the diversity of backgrounds and opinions in our labs.