Meet Zhong Yan Gan

PhD student, Ubiquitin Signalling division. Zhong says his research, which has already led to a paper in Nature, has benefitted from WEHI’s collaborative culture.

Why did you choose WEHI for your PhD?

WEHI is focused on academic research, and this creates a more scientifically fulfilling environment as a student. There is also a highly collaborative culture at WEHI.

“WEHI is at the forefront of biomedical research in Australia. It is globally renowned and its facilities rival the top research institutes around the world.”
– Zhong Yan Gan
Zhong Yan Gan, PhD Student profile
Above: Zhong Yan Gan’s PhD research focuses on understanding the protein PINK1 and how it functions in our cells to trigger the recycling of damaged mitochondria.

What’s your PhD research about?

My PhD research focuses on understanding the protein PINK1 and how it functions in our cells to trigger the recycling of damaged mitochondria, a process known as mitophagy. Mitophagy is critical for maintaining the health of our cells, and when PINK1 is defective, it leads to the death of the neurons in our brain and the development of early onset Parkinson’s disease.

I am studying PINK1 using a variety of techniques, including biochemical assays to assess PINK1’s activity in a test tube, using structural biology techniques to take molecular snapshots of PINK1 in action. These experiments are complemented with experiments using cultured cells to understand PINK1’s function in cellular context.

What are you passionate about?

I am fascinated by the processes that underly basic cell function at the molecular level. This type of research helps advance our knowledge of the inner workings of our cells, enabling us to understand what goes awry in a diseased state, and eventually facilitate the development of drugs that can slow down or cure diseases.

How did it feel to have a paper published in Nature about the protein linked to Parkinson’s disease?

The key finding of my paper originated from a completely unexpected discovery. Whilst purifying the PINK1 protein from bacteria, I found that PINK1 self-associates into large oligomers consisting of multiple copies of the protein. Most people would not look twice at this result and dismiss these oligomers as aggregates. However, I noticed that this oligomer was not aggregated, but in fact highly ordered.

By exploiting this feature, we were able to use cryo-electron microscopy (cryo-EM) to take detailed snapshots of the protein, revealing an important functional state of PINK1 that, if not for the oligomer, would have been extremely difficult to capture.

When I made this finding, I recognised its importance and immediately grabbed onto it and worked day and night to put the rest of the story together. Given the exciting data, I managed to prepare the paper rather quickly and whilst often stressful, it was also a tremendously exciting and rewarding time.

I am very happy about the outcome of the project, and it was a great reward for the hard work that I put in.

What does a typical working day involve?

A typical working day for me involves a mix of:

  • planning experiments and formulating new ideas
  • performing experiments in the laboratory, which takes most time
  • analysing data and compiling results
  • discussions with colleagues about research, ideas and/or problems encountered
  • attending meetings and seminars.

How has WEHI supported your studies?

WEHI has a diverse and supportive student cohort. The student association organises regular social events, scientific events and professional development opportunities. Most importantly, food is supplied at each event.

Second, and one I can only say for myself, I have been exceptionally well supported by my supervisors, Professor David Komander and Associate Professor Grant Dewson, both of whom go out of their way to assist me when I need it, so I really owe a lot to them.

I have also been fortunate to be part of the Ubiquitin Signalling division, a young and energetic division, surrounded by highly motivated and hard-working colleagues.

Third, WEHI also has a highly collaborative environment. You can almost contact anyone at the institute, and virtually everyone is willing to help.

I could not be happier with the support I have received during my PhD studies.

What did you do before starting your post-graduate studies?

From 2015 to 2017, I completed a Bachelor of Science at The University of Melbourne, majoring in Neuroscience. In 2018, I completed a Bachelor of Science (Honours) degree at University of Melbourne with the Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, carrying out my research project at The Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre.

In the summer breaks during my undergraduate studies, I also completed summer research projects at The University of Sydney, the University of Wollongong and the Australian National University.

Do you have plans for what you’d like to do after your PhD?

I am focused on an academic career. Next year, I plan to move overseas for a postdoctoral research position, to explore a new research topic, further my scientific skillset and contribute to the pursuit of scientific knowledge.

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