Dr. Hongkui Zeng is Executive Vice President and Director of the Allen Institute for Brain Science. She received her B.S. degree in biochemistry from Wuhan University and her PhD in molecular and cell biology from Brandeis University. Next, she conducted postdoctoral research at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Hongkui then worked for several years at Omeros Corporation before joining the Allen Institute in 2006. Hongkui has received numerous awards for her work, including the National Academy of Sciences’ Pradel Research Award, Gill Transformative Investigator Award from Indiana University, the NIH BRAIN Initiative Cell Census Network Award, and the Award for Scientific Advancement from the Association for Women in Science. She is also an elected member of the National Academy of Sciences. In this interview, Hongkui shares more about her life and science.
People Behind the Science Podcast Show Notes
Life Outside of Science (2:48)
Living in the beautiful city of Seattle, Hongkui enjoys getting outside and exploring nature. This includes kayaking and hiking in the nearby mountains. When she’s at home, Hongkui likes to relax with a good book, listen to music, and indulge in watching shows and movies.
The Scientific Side (4:49)
The Allen Institute is dedicated to understanding how the brain is organized and how the different components of the brain work together to generate behaviors and functions. Hongkui and her colleagues examine the cellular basis of brain circuit formation and how those circuits produce function. They generate foundational tools and resources for the neuroscience community to help scientists around the world advance their research on neurological disease, potential treatments, and more.
A Dose of Motivation (6:28)
Hongkui is driven by curiosity and problem-solving. She views the brain as a big mystery, and she enjoys working to explore the unknown. In addition, doing something meaningful for the community is important to Hongkui, and her work has already been beneficial to many people.
What Got You Hooked on Science? (10:53)
When she was young, Hongkui excelled at science and math. This, combined with her curiosity, independent thinking, and love of problem-solving, made pursuing science a natural fit. In college, Hongkui started thinking more seriously about her career path and the kind of work she wanted to pursue. She decided to move to the United States to attend graduate school, and she had a great experience working with phenomenal mentors during her academic training.
The Low Points: Failures and Challenges (15:53)
A major challenge that is relatively unique to the Allen Institute is related to scaling up the new methodologies that they adopt. When they are working with new methods, one person may get it to work well, but then another person is unable to replicate the results with the same procedure. With each new methodology they use, they’ve had to figure out how to make the process standardized enough so that multiple people are able to learn the process and produce data of similarly high quality. This takes a lot of troubleshooting and quality control. As a leader at the Allen Institute, Hongkui is also responsible for the difficult tasks of coordination and communication across the different teams of people she manages. This is critical for making sure people are working together, following a set process, and establishing reliable pipelines that will constantly, consistently generate high-quality data.
A Shining Success! (19:52)
Almost ten years ago Hongkui and her team completed a groundbreaking effort developing the first comprehensive connectivity atlas for the mouse brain. This was a major success, but it wasn’t particularly well-appreciated at the time. The project was Hongkui’s first pipeline project at the Allen Institute in which she played a leading role. Hongkui and her small team of 2-3 people started the project in 2009, and it took several years to complete. Ultimately, they published a paper in the prestigious journal Nature, but their work was initially criticized as not being novel or innovative enough. However, this atlas really was exceptional in terms of the comprehensiveness of the project, the fact that the data were made freely available in an easy-to-use online platform, and the development of an algorithm that allowed them to co-register thousands of individual brains together into a single coordinate framework to computationally compare pathways in the same spatial framework. Over the years, the atlas has become more popular and is now commonly used by others in the field. Colleagues have since told Hongkui that the project was really ahead of its time, and it has been rewarding to see the work finally being recognized.
Book Recommendations (3:28)
Poor Economics: A Radical Rethinking of the Way to Fight Global Poverty by Abhijit V. Banerjee and Esther Duflo
Most Treasured Travel (28:07)
Hongkui has enjoyed traveling to many countries around the world for scientific conferences. The foundational work Hongkui does at the Allen institute has the potential to accelerate research in a wide variety of areas of neuroscience. As a result, she isn’t a regular attendee of any particular conference each year, but instead she goes to an assortment of conferences spanning different neurological diseases and functional systems (sensory, motor, emotion, cognition). Hongkui has learned so much from the people she has met at these conferences. Two years ago, she attended a memorable meeting in Puerto Rico where she gave a plenary lecture on their cell atlas work. This was a clinical conference, and the attendees were interested in different psychiatric disorders. It was refreshing to interact with clinicians and clinical researchers and to think about how her foundational knowledge could be applied to help advance their clinical work. The meeting was fantastic, and it was wonderful to take some time to stroll down the beaches in sunny Puerto Rico in December!
Quirky Traditions and Funny Memories (32:20)
Scientists at the Allen Institute often go out and have fun together. Whether they are meeting up at a local bar to socialize, competing for the best costume at the annual Halloween party, or enjoying tea and cookies at their usual Thursday afternoon tea time, they find ways to weave in time for conversations and festivities. When Hongkui worked in Michael Rosbach’s lab at Brandeis, everyday life in the lab was infused with humor. Dr. Rosbach had a notebook where he would collect jokes, and he always included a joke at the beginning of his presentations. This became a tradition in the lab, and there was some serious pressure to find good jokes to include in any lab presentation. They also incorporated humor into the Secret Santa gift exchange at their annual Christmas parties, and everyone would get each other funny gifts.
Advice For Us All (37:50)
Important tasks and unimportant tasks both take time and effort. Choose wisely how you will spend your time and effort. Don’t focus on unimportant tasks thinking that they will somehow be easier. You should figure out what is the most important thing to you and focus your energy and effort on doing that one thing. Also, be humble. For leaders in particular, it is important to be open about your limitations and vulnerabilities. Doing this can help others realize that they also have the potential to realize their goals and dreams.
Since joining the Allen Institute in 2006, Hongkui has led several efforts to develop and operate high-throughput pipelines to generate large-scale, open-access datasets and tools to accelerate neuroscience discovery. Her current research interests are in understanding neuronal diversity and connectivity in the mouse brain-wide circuits and how different cell types work together to process and transform information. Through her leadership of multiple scientific teams at the Allen Institute for Brain Science, she has built several research programs using transcriptomic, connectomic and multimodal approaches to characterize and classify the wide variety of cell types that constitute the mammalian brain, laying the foundation for unraveling the cell type basis of brain function. Her work has led to widely adopted community resources and standards, including transgenic mouse lines, Allen Mouse Brain Connectivity Atlas, the Common Coordinate Framework (CCF), and the brain-wide transcriptomic cell type taxonomy and atlas. In her free time, Hongkui enjoys watching movies and shows, reading, kayaking, and hiking.
Support for this episode of People Behind the Science was provided by Innovative Research, Inc.