Dr. Sunny Wong is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Dermatology and the Department of Cell and Developmental Biology at the University of Michigan School of Medicine. He received his B.A. from Cornell University in Biology and his PhD in Biology from Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Sunny was awarded American Cancer Society and A.P. Giannini Postdoctoral fellowships to conduct postdoctoral research at the University of California, San Francisco. Sunny is a Member of the Organogenesis Scholars and the Biological Sciences Scholars Programs at the University of Michigan as well. In our interview Sunny told us about his experiences in life and science.
People Behind the Science Podcast Show Notes
Life Outside of Science (2:08)
In addition to his passion for science, Sunny loves creative writing and reading literature. Lately, he’s also enjoyed learning more about modern art, art history, and various artists.
The Scientific Side (4:57)
Sunny’s lab studies skin biology. Skin is a complex organ that covers our entire body and is composed of different cells and systems. He is interested in understanding how skin develops and what can go wrong in skin, particularly in skin cancer. His lab is working on projects examining how basal cell carcinoma tumors form, the genetics of these tumors, and how these tumors respond to drug therapies. In addition to research, Sunny dedicates his efforts at work to thinking, reading scientific papers, coming up with new research ideas, reviewing papers, giving presentations, going to conferences, mentoring students, and writing papers and grants.
A Dose of Motivation (8:03)
It’s important to pursue the most important and ambitious questions you can think of. Regardless of whether you choose safe or challenging projects to work on, you will run into difficulties, so you should go after the most exciting questions. Don’t be afraid to be wrong or waste your time. If you are chasing after an ambitious goal, you’ll eventually stumble across something interesting in science.
What Got You Hooked on Science? (11:58)
Initially, Sunny aimed to become a writer. To earn extra money in college and gain work experience, he applied for a side job feeding snails in a research lab. He didn’t get the job. However, Sunny ended up joining a lab that was attempting to create transgenic potatoes to serve as edible vaccines for hepatitis B in developing countries that may not have access to traditional vaccines. He had a great mentor and a wonderful experience there. At the same time, Sunny was working for the Cornell newspaper making calls, interviewing people, and writing articles on a variety of topics. After straddling these two worlds of science and journalism for a little while, Sunny realized he had to choose to focus one or the other. He wouldn’t be able to continue excelling in both in the long term. In the end, science won, but Sunny hopes to get back to writing someday as well.
The Low Points: Failures and Challenges (22:19)
In his first year as an independent investigator at the University of Michigan, Sunny struggled to determine what a particular antibody they were working with was binding to. This antibody had unique properties in the skin where it identified a subset of cells that had never been characterized. They knew the antibody was unexpectedly binding to one of the cell’s proteins, but they had no idea which protein. It was frustrating because there are tens of thousands of proteins, and their antibody could be binding to any one of them. Sunny and a postdoctoral fellow in his lab worked daily on this conundrum for twelve long months, and their efforts produced failure after failure. Finally, they figured out how to answer this question, and Sunny will always remember that moment when they witnessed positive results for one of the candidate proteins they were testing.
A Shining Success! (25:52)
Sunny recently received an excellent score on a grant that he submitted for funding through the American Cancer Society. Though the notice didn’t indicate whether his project would ultimately be funded, it was exciting to know that his research was well-received by the reviewers. When the email with his grant score arrived, Sunny didn’t want to open it at first because he was certain it contained bad news. The possibility of having research support from the American Cancer Society as an independent investigator was particularly meaningful since they previously funded his work as a postdoctoral fellow. Following our interview, Sunny got the official notice from the American Cancer Society that his grant was funded!
Book Recommendations (9:53)
Natural Obsessions: Striving to Unlock the Deepest Secrets of the Cancer Cell by Natalie Angier, Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates, The Easter Parade by Richard Yates, Cold Spring Harbor by Richard Yates, short stories by Raymond Carver.
Most Treasured Travel (28:56)
Travel is an exciting part of Sunny’s work, but he tries to limit his travel to one trip per month to help stay connected with work in the lab and give himself time to recover after the intense itineraries of conferences and scheduled presentations. Sunny recently traveled to Washington D.C. to give a presentation at Georgetown University, and Washington D.C. is one of his favorite places to visit. He was thrilled to be able to spend a day at the end of the trip exploring some of the magnificent history, art, and science museums there.
Quirky Traditions and Funny Memories (30:53)
Scientists are like other artisans who are very good at a few specific skills. Contrary to the austere, white-coated depictions of researchers common in popular media, one of the things Sunny appreciates about his job is that he can wear normal casual clothes to work. He and his lab members also have fun together going out to eat in downtown Ann Arbor to celebrate important occasions like birthdays, paper publications, and grant awards. Sunny’s lab members have also surprised him by covertly decorating his office overnight, and he continues to display many of these decorations.
Advice For Us All (37:00)
Don’t get too hung up on or attached to an initial finding in science, because if you do, you’re likely to be disappointed later. Don’t get excited about a result until you’ve repeated the experiment with proper controls and you are certain the data are telling you what you think they are. If you are wrong, pursue something else. Keep an open mind, observe carefully, be open to new ideas, and good things are bound to happen. Luck certainly plays a role, but you can put yourself in a position to be lucky. Also, there is a place in science for everyone who is interested. Approaching science with a liberal arts background like Sunny has is valuable because imagination and creativity are important in science. People who are daydreamers, imaginers, creative, and deep thinkers can be excellent scientists.
Sunny’s research is focused on how skin and hair follicles form, and how the process goes awry in skin cancer. His outside interests include reading, writing, running, and learning about art. He can be reached at syw55[at]yahoo.com