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Scientist hopes to target disease treatment by studying gene regulation

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10 Questions with Distinguished Honors Faculty Member Song Tan. Written by Julia Kern, a college relations intern with the Schreyer Honors College.
Scientist hopes to target disease treatment by studying gene regulation

Song Tan

In an effort to solve some of life’s biggest problems, Dr. Song Tan is looking at some of life’s smallest parts.

According to Dr. Tan, a professor of biochemistry and molecular biology in the Eberly College of Science, his research – in which he examines the fundamental differences between regular and diseased cells – could provide insight into diagnosing and treating diseases.

As a member of the Schreyer Honors College’s Distinguished Honors Faculty Program, Dr. Tan will be leading a handful of discussions for Schreyer Scholars this fall. We caught up with Dr. Tan to learn more about his research and his plans for his DHF series.

Tell me about your research. What kind of research have you done in the past, and what research are you currently working on?

My research is in gene regulation, which is important because it relates to fundamental questions of how a cell develops. If you think of the cell as a city, for the city to function, there has to be proper transport of goods and services across the city. And to keep that transportation in order, you need traffic lights. If things aren’t regulated, there’s chaos. In relation to a cell, the chaos from unregulated gene expression can lead to a cancer cell. We look at how genes are regulated in a normal cell so we can understand how they misfunction in a diseased cell.

What is to be gained from this research?

This work is important on two levels. First, it’s important on a basic scientific level. We look at fundamental questions such as, how does life work? A cell is clearly very complicated, but how is all that controlled? This is what basic science is: not necessarily knowing all the practical benefits yet, but knowing there’s value in trying to figure out what’s happening in a normal versus a diseased cell.

But we’ve also had at the back of our minds that the information we get will be important for diagnosing and treating human diseases, as well. There are diseases – including cancer – that are associated with some of the proteins we’re working with. We’re hoping our research and understanding about what’s different between a normal cell and a diseased cell will be able to provide some insight and potentially some new therapeutics for these diseases in the future.

What do you predict to be the trajectory of this kind of research? Do you think it’s going to become even more developed in the next 10 years? 20 years?

The work that we’re doing is at the frontier of structural biology. In next five or 10 years, there will be technical developments that we’re working on now to try to push the field forward. In terms of gene regulation, there will be even more examples of multidisciplinary and collaborative approaches. We hope there will also be useful drugs based on this type of fundamental science research that we’re doing.

You’re clearly an experienced researcher, but you’re also a professor at Penn State. What courses are you currently teaching? What makes teaching and research distinctly different?

I teach a 400-level physical chemistry course for biochemistry and molecular biology majors or microbiology majors. I’m also teaching a graduate course in the spring, which is more closely related to my research on the structure and function of biomolecules.

But in a sense, teaching doesn’t end in the classroom – teaching goes on all the time with undergraduate and graduate students in our research work. Yes, my job is research, teaching, and service to the community. But I prefer not to divide it up. The teaching goes on all the time.

What kinds of students have expressed interest in your field of work? How would you describe students that thrive in this kind of environment?

Students who do well in this environment are students who are adventurous, who are self-motivated, and who are willing to work hard. They have to be willing to do things that are not in a “cookbook situation.” In a classroom, you’re given a protocol that will give you the desired result as long as you follow the protocol. In a research lab, while there may be protocols, they are going to be more challenging to use. If somebody’s adventurous and willing to work hard, he or she will enjoy that challenge.

And while students don’t always come in knowing that they’re going to like the work, they will soon find out. That’s one of the best things that an undergraduate scholar can do: Work on something that you don’t know that you like. If you find out you like it, that’s great. If you find out that you don’t, that’s great, too because you’ve learnt something about yourself and what interests you.

What kinds of suggestions would you give students who are looking to pursue research in a similar field?

First, begin your research sooner rather than later. Even if you’re not thinking about your honors thesis, there’s so much you can learn from working in a lab or doing research with a professor that complements your classroom experiences. One of the common comments students make is that they learn so much from working in a lab and that it helped them so much to better understand their classroom work.

Second, be persistent. Find out which labs are doing things you might be interested in, and be persistent in sending off applications and requests. Part of that is being ready for rejection – to be told “Sorry, we’re not taking students now,” or “Sorry, you’re not qualified yet.” Be ready to hear “no” for an answer and keep trying.

What motivated you to become part of the Distinguished Honors Faculty program?

Undergraduate students in their honors theses can do really important, significant research, and I’ve had great experiences with honors students. These students have also had the opportunity to go for international scholarships such as the Rhodes and Marshall scholarships. I think we have students here who are equal in caliber to students who win these kinds of awards. I’m hoping that by interacting with honors students in this program, I can help students prepare for these kinds of scholarships.

Your DHF series involves the screening of a movie about eugenics. What do you hope students will take away from the screening and ensuing discussion?

“Gattaca” is a film from the ’90s with Ethan Hawke and Uma Thurman. The film occurs in the future where, in essence, parents can choose the traits of the children. They can choose their children to be free of physical or mental limitations, but there are still a few parents who go the traditional way, and their kids are outcasts – considered to be “invalid”.

The discussion after the movie is about issues surrounding eugenics, which is the study of how to improve genetic qualities. With developments in biotechnology, a real problem we’re going to face in the next decade is that some of these methods of eugenics may actually become possible. The question students will think about is: What’s acceptable? You can say no eugenics is acceptable, but people make prenatal decisions about unborns with chromosomal abnormalities, and that’s a form of eugenics. So who decides? And how do you decide?

Do you have a specific memory – perhaps a favorite class or experience – that marked the beginning of your interest in biology and science?

I can’t remember how old I was, or what book it was, but I remember reading in a particular book that hydrogen and oxygen made water, and to me it was amazing that two gases made water. I think that was the beginning of my interest in chemistry. The work that I do now is very multi-disciplinary – biology, chemistry, physics, and math go into work that we do – and that chemistry aspect is very important.

If you could choose to have dinner with any public figure – past or present, scientist or not – who would it be, and why?

Robert Kennedy. One of the things that impresses me about Robert Kennedy is that he developed as a person throughout his life. What I find fascinating was his ability to always learn and change throughout his life. He suffered a lot, especially with the death of his brother. But while he went through a mourning period, he came out of it with a better understanding of himself and his service to his country. If I had the chance, I would want to ask him about what he learned from the experience and how he would counsel other people about how to grow from experiences like that.

I also would be curious to ask him what he thought about the development of technology at the time that he was around because, in the ’60s, there was already a technology movement – though perhaps not as much as we see today. The growing influence of technology is something all of us face, and I’d be interested to hear more about what he thought of it.

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