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March 27, 2013 — He may not be listed in the Wyoming Almanac, but Xihui (Alex) Xu has made University of Wyoming history of sorts.
Come May, he will become the first Ph.D. graduate from UW’s biomedical sciences doctoral program.
Xu defended his doctoral dissertation, titled “The Role of Autophagy in Cardiac Stress,” March 7. Autophagy is defined as when a cell degrades or essentially cannibalizes itself of unnecessary or dysfunctional cellular components. Autophagy plays a pivotal role in regulating the ventricular function of the heart.
Xu explores the role of autophagy in the heart under different stress factor conditions. These include obesity caused through a fat-induced diet; pressure overload-induced cardiac hypertrophy; heart failure caused by the induced use of the drug doxorubicin, which is used in cancer chemotherapy; and alcohol-induced cardiac toxicity. To conduct his research, Xu primarily used heart tissue from mice but, in one instance, used hearts from human cadavers of heart-failure patients.
“Heart disease is one of the leading causes of death in the U.S.,” says Xu, who is from Suzhou, China. “I would like to help uncover the underlying mechanism of how these diseases progress. My grandparents, they have hypertension. Right now, they are both more than 90 years old. If we can find new drugs for hypertension, maybe they stay around longer.”
For Xu, the magnitude of his accomplishment is still setting in.
“One, I had the pressure to be a good student,” Xu says. “The other side is, for this program to develop, I had to learn from my experience to see where I can improve myself.”
Jun Ren, associate dean of the College of Health Sciences and Xu’s adviser, says Xu has sort of been “the guinea pig” for the doctoral program. Ren says Xu fit the bill for the qualities the program’s faculty members look for in a student. These qualities include: a high GPA, potential to conduct successful research, the ability to think critically and to be highly motivated.
“He has set the bar for the rest of the students,” says Sreejayan Nair, director of the biomedical sciences doctoral program.
In addition to successfully presenting his dissertation, Xu, during the pursuit of his Ph.D., has been published in professional journals; has written, with Ren, a chapter for a reference book on obesity that can be used by physicians; and has a patent, also with Ren, for a cell culture technique.
With strong financial support from the National Institutes for Health INBRE (IDEA Networks for Biomedical Research Excellence) program, the Ph.D. in biomedical sciences was established in 2010. Biomedical science is the study of human biological processes, which includes the complex interactions between physiological, genetic and environmental factors that influence disease and health. It spans the spectrum from fundamental discovery to innovation and application, according to the program’s web page.
The doctoral program is designed to meet the needs and interests of students, and to address important workforce demands for doctoral-level, biomedical research expertise. It also is designed to position graduates for long-term competitive success in the rapidly changing and multifaceted health-related arena in the 21st century.
In addition to completing a dissertation, students in the program must successfully complete a minimum of 21 credit hours of core courses, 15 credit hours from electives in sub-specialty areas and 18 credit hours of research.
“The unique characteristic of this program is that it is the first campuswide program that focuses on integrated physiology and looks at the human as a body rather than a cell,” says Ren, who credited Academic Affairs and the College of Health Sciences for their program support. “This program has better ties to human health and disease.”
Path to a Ph.D.
After receiving his master’s degree in pharmacology and his bachelor’s degree in pharmacy, both from Soochow University in China, Xu came to UW in 2007. He enrolled in graduate school and majored in neuroscience through 2010. He started the doctoral program in that subject, before deciding to pursue the master’s program.
But Xu says he gradually lost interest in neuroscience. He turned his attention to the biomedical sciences doctoral program that Ren and Don Roth developed. Xu found the program attractive and decided to apply. Xu was one of 10 initial Ph.D. candidates who started in the program three years ago. Two students eventually dropped out, with two more taking their place this past year, Nair says.
Xu’s journey to this point has included what one would expect -- countless hours studying, writing for publication, making conference presentations and spending research time in the lab. And he had to juggle that around family obligations, as he is married and has one child, with another on the way.
While the dissertation, or 50-minute oral presentation to his advisory committee, culminated his doctoral degree, it wasn’t like Xu drank a gallon of Red Bull and stayed up all night preparing for his big day. In fact, Ren advised him to get a good night’s sleep.
After all, Xu had been building toward his big moment for three years. During that time, Ren, Nair and other faculty members on his advisory committee kept Xu on task with his research through various meetings, consultations, progress reports and preliminary and oral exams. In essence, the advisory committee helped Xu build the blocks he needed to put it all together for his dissertation defense.
“It is challenging. We have to learn a lot about how and why molecular pathways in the heart are working,” Xu says. “You have to learn to think like a successful scientist rather than just a student. We have to improve our way of thinking and criticize input (conventional wisdom about autophagy) of the outside world.”
For the short term, Xu plans to remain and work in Ren’s lab, but will turn his attention to examining the role that resident cardiac stem cells play in heart development. For the future, Xu desires to land a faculty position either in the United States or back home in China.
Xihui (Alex) Xu poses for a photo shortly before making his dissertation defense to his advisory committee. In May, Xu will become the first graduate of UW’s Biomedical Sciences doctoral program. Committee members (seated clockwise, from left) are Bruce Culver, professor, School of Pharmacy; Jun Ren, professor and associate dean, College of Health Sciences; Sreejayan Nair, director, Biomedical Services Program; and Enette Larson-Meyer, associate professor, human nutrition and food program area. (School of Pharmacy Photo)