Meet a Whitehead Postdoc: Kehui Xiang

Kehui smiling in front of lab shelves full of equipment

Whitehead Institute postdoc Kehui Xiang


Image: Conor Gearin/Whitehead Institute

Kehui “Coffee” Xiang is a postdoc in Whitehead Institute Member David Bartel’s lab and a Cancer Research Institute Irvington Fellow supported by the Cancer Research Institute. He is investigating regulation of gene expression by RNA. We sat down with Xiang to learn more about him and his experiences in and out of the lab. 


What do you investigate?

Gene expression is how proteins are made; proteins are formed from RNA, which is formed from DNA. We're trying to understand how gene expression is regulated, specifically by RNA. We want to understand what features of RNA can influence protein levels. A very interesting feature is that the end of messenger RNA, the type of RNA that is translated into proteins, has a tail made up of a stretch of A’s — one type of nucleotide or building block of RNA. The length of the stretch of A’s, called the poly(A) tail, can impact how well the RNA is translated into protein. The longer the tail, the better the RNA can be translated — but this is only true in some systems. For example, the poly(A) tail can regulate protein translation during early development of a fertilized egg into an embryo, but after a phase called gastrulation and in later stages of development, the poly(A) tail’s impact seems to disappear. So there are these different regulatory regimes that occur in different places, at different times, and I'm trying to understand why that's the case and what is the molecular mechanism behind these changes.


How did you end up at Whitehead Institute?

My program in college was basically fundamental sciences; I did physics and math. My junior year I joined a structural biology lab, working in an interdisciplinary area between physics and biology. Then I came to the United States, to Columbia University, to continue doing structural biology. After a few years, I didn't feel like I was engaging fully with the biology part. I wanted to enter a different field, so I went around and interviewed at a few labs. I thought the work in the Bartel lab was quite interesting, and I had some RNA biology background from grad school, so I came here.


What are your favorite and least favorite parts of your job?

My favorite part is learning new things. I like when I understand something that I didn't before. What I don’t like is when things don’t work as they are supposed to. It can be very frustrating.


What’s the culture of the Bartel lab?

Dave is a very good mentor. He is more hands on with students, and gives the postdocs a lot of freedom. As postdocs, we can choose our own projects based on what we are interested in and how it aligns with the expertise in the lab. I think the level of freedom Dave gives us is very good for postdoc training. When I was in graduate school, my PI was more hands on and I feel like that's good for students: You need more guidance so you get training and you learn a lot of things. But as a postdoc you're working more like a colleague, so you need more freedom to think and explore. This will benefit us when we become independent researchers in the future. The people who have come out of Dave's lab are working on so many different things, many of which are not necessarily related to Dave's major focus; some people would say that’s quite unusual. I think it’s great and due to Dave being so supportive, and it’s one of the reasons why I chose to come to the lab.


What did you want to be as a kid?

Originally, I thought I wanted to be a doctor, helping patients and curing diseases, but I couldn't bear the idea that sometimes you can't help people even if you really want to. I didn’t think I could handle watching people who are sick, whom I couldn't help, suffer. Instead I decided to be a scientist, and maybe understand how to help people live longer or be healthier. Also, my secret dream job is that I’ve always wanted to be a maestro, a conductor. I don’t play any instruments: I wanted to play violin as a kid but never had the chance. Being a conductor is not a dream I think I’ll realize, but it’s nice to imagine.


What are your hobbies outside of work?

I like basketball, that's something I'm passionate about. I play on the weekends, and I watch basketball games. My favorite team is Oklahoma City Thunder, because there were two players on the team, Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, that I really liked. Unfortunately, Kevin Durant left for Golden State, but I still like OKC as a team. I also used to like the Houston Rockets, because Yao Ming was on the team and he was one of the best Chinese players in the NBA.

Besides basketball, I work out every day, I watch a lot of movies, and I play video games with friends. Sometimes I also build models. I have two aircraft carriers, some planes, and battle tanks. I made a lot of models when I was young, but I have only made a couple during my postdoc because I just don't have that much time.


Whom do you play basketball with?

I just play with whoever is on the court. I don't think many people in our institute play, or at least I don’t see them playing at the gym. If more people from Whitehead Institute wanted to play together I think that would be fun.


What’s been your experience of living in Boston?

The places I lived before Boston are large cities: Beijing and New York City. New York is big and international and the pace is so fast. Boston is not as fast as New York, and it's not as stressful. The traffic is not as bad as New York, so that's a plus. Boston is small, but it’s interesting. There are so many great universities, including MIT, and you have a chance to communicate with so many smart, intelligent people. But I'm not sure I want to stay here. It’s too small, and I miss all the good food in New York City. Also it’s too cold! I want to live somewhere warmer.


What’s your favorite place you’ve ever travelled to?

Hawaii. I enjoy sunshine and being able to go out into nature. When I went to Hawaii, as we were landing the pilot said, "Welcome to paradise," and it's true. It’s a magical place. The weather is so nice and warm, and I wish every day was like that. It's so relaxing that I felt like I could just forget everything and be present. And they have incredible nature to explore: forests, craters, beaches, volcanoes. I really liked the Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. I have a plan to go to one national park every year.


How many national parks have you been to?

I’ve been to four so far. Last year I went to Yellowstone. I saw a lot of interesting animals there that I'd never seen before. I learned a lot of things, like I couldn't tell the difference between moose, elk, and pronghorn. In Chinese they have the same name, but in English the words are different. I saw them all in Yellowstone and learned how you can tell them apart by how they look. I got really close to them.


Where do you see yourself in 10 years?

In ten years, hopefully, I will have my own lab, and be doing research that I'm really interested in — not only basic science but translational science that can help people understand how we can cure different diseases. I also want to be someplace warmer than Boston.


Someplace like Hawaii?

A place like Hawaii would be ideal for me apparently. Sunshine, warmth, nature. But I think I prefer it as a place to go on vacation. I’m not sure where I want to end up.



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