Lei Wang, PhD, associate professor of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences and of Radiology, is focused on the future. His lab is developing neuroimaging biomarkers for a wide range of neuropsychiatric disorders, neurodegenerative and genetic diseases, but it isn’t looking to innovate purely on medical imaging. They are also on the front lines of virtual collaboration, partnering with a lab at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver to create a fully-fledged virtual lab that conducts research and publishes in journals, with over twenty papers published so far.
Wang’s involvement in other big data and open science initiatives such as Northwestern University Neuroimaging Data Archive (NUNDA) and SchizConnect underscore his commitment to next-generation data collection and utilization.
Wang is also a member of the Cognitive Neurology and Alzheimer's Disease Center (CNADC), Northwestern University Clinical and Translational Sciences Institute (NUCATS), Robert H. Lurie Comprehensive Cancer Center of Northwestern University, and Northwestern University Interdepartmental Neuroscience.
What are your research interests?
I am interested in developing neuroimaging biomarkers for neuropsychiatric disorders ranging from psychosis and dementia to pediatric HIV and cancer-treatment related cognitive dysfunction. I am interested in understanding these disorders at the brain circuit and systems levels.
Neuroimaging biomarkers are complex, multidimensional and should be integrated across multiple modalities. I use computational anatomy tools to develop these biomarkers, bridging mathematics, engineering and clinical neuroscience. I am also interested in contributing to the building of big data and open science infrastructure for neuroimaging research.
Other interests of mine include reproducibility science: standards on data collection, terminology, manipulation and reporting.
What is the ultimate goal of your research?
The ultimate goal of my research is to leverage the understanding of the neural mechanisms of neuropsychiatric disorders to develop personalized biomarkers for prediction and intervention. I want to develop both horizontal and vertical approaches towards this goal.
Horizontal approaches would allow for integration across different disorders and species, and vertical approaches would allow for integrations across genetics, molecules, cells, brain circuits and behavior.
I also would like to see scientific resources reach as many people as possible. Such people include students at smaller labs or institutions, clinicians without access to a wealth of resources, or geographically isolated collaborators.
How does your research advance medical science and knowledge?
Neuroimaging biomarkers can help us see the structure and function of the living brain and help us see when and where disease breaks down neural function. This advances both basic science and patient care.
For example, we can use multimodal imaging approaches to examine what happens to the brain’s ability to activate and communicate with other brain regions when there is a structural breakdown. That understanding could help explain why people develop certain cognitive dysfunctions or clinical symptoms, and in turn help develop targeted intervention strategies.
Big data and the increasingly large amount of open science research will help us get to the truth faster, making new discoveries by combining and more fully utilizing already-collected data. Open science will also encourage sharing of tools and foster new collaborations.
What types of collaborations are you engaged in across campus (and beyond)?
My research philosophy is one that fosters and emphasizes collaborative interactions.
I have a virtual joint lab with my main collaborator at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver. Not only do we have weekly video conferencing for lab members, but we also have set up a virtual lab environment for computing, supervision and publication. I sit on their thesis committees and we published over 20 peer-reviewed papers together.
My lab is the lead-site for two National Institutes of Health (NIH)-funded multisite studies; PREDICT-AD/FTD, which focuses on biomarker discovery and SchizConnect, which focuses on data science. My lab is also a key component of other NIH- and National Science Foundation (NSF)-funded multisite data science initiatives: Advanced Computational Neuroscience Network (ACNN), Brain Life, and Subcortical Shape Diffeomorphometry (BD2K). I attribute our success in large part to the successful collaborative relationships we have built.
I also collaborate actively with PIs from Northwestern University and across the world in a variety of clinical studies: adult HIV, childhood origins of coronary heart disease disparities, cerebral small vessels in motor and cognitive decline, glioblastoma, TIC disorder, schizophrenia, and dementia. I am also collaborating with NU labs on neuroimaging of animal models.
Who makes up your research team and what role does each individual play in your research?
I have a hybrid physical and virtual environment in the lab. The research team consists of trainees from across the spectrum: Lisanne Jenkins, PhD, is a psychology postdoc, Paula Lewis-De Los Angeles is a neuroscience student in the Medical Scientist Training Program, Ali Apple and Julie Peterson are students in the Clinical Psychology PhD Program, Amandeep Jutla, MD, is a clinical fellow at Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago, Ivy Huang is a medical student at Feinberg, Samantha Yang is a Northwestern University undergrad, and Shun Chin “Jim” Wu is a visiting student from Taiwan.
The daily operations are supported by two incredibly dedicated and skilled software engineers who work remotely: Kate Albert enjoys living in Boulder CO, and Alex Kogan prefers the Big Apple.
The lab environment is friendly and collegial, but people do argue about science and life. We do that at lab meetings and Wednesday afternoon tea times. Each person has a major focus but relies on collaboration with lab members and others to excel. My lab has been described as the “happiest bunch” by some folks in our department.
What do you enjoy about teaching/mentoring young scientists in the lab?
I want to see my trainees make each other better and make the lab grow—without growth we are nothing. I have an open door policy and enjoy having them walk in and talking just about anything. I also enjoy watching them becoming able to “see” – i.e., gaining the ability to synthesize and see the big picture and new patterns. I enjoy challenging them.