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Wang Enters Columbia Ph.D. Program

Jul 25 2023

Posted In:

20/20 Blog



Palo Alto, CA — Elena Wang came to the Mahajan Lab in 2021 a novice and is leaving a seasoned scientist ready to take on the challenges she will face as a Ph.D. student at Columbia University this fall. 

Vinit Mahajan M.D., Ph.D., Stanford professor and vice chair of ophthalmology research, carefully orchestrates his trainees’ programs right down to the templates they use for papers and figures. The goal is to turn what could be a sink or swim experience into a well-traveled step by step path that leads to success.

Elena stuck to the program and impressed her lab mentors with her progress. Senior lab leaders Young Joo Sun Ph.D. and Soo Hyeon Lee Ph.D. have embraced the collaborative spirit so vital to the lab’s success and are recognized as excellent mentors who value, guide, and support trainees. The environment they foster helped Elena gain admittance to Columbia University’s Ph.D. program and earn an early career grant from the National Science Foundation, two accomplishments she could not envision when she first joined the lab.

Mahajan said, “We put a great hands-on curriculum in place, but trainees must work hard and follow the program. Elena did just that. I couldn’t be prouder of her commitment to scientific excellence and her willingness to put in the hard work and long hours. Her story is the perfect example of how to become successful by taking full advantage of the opportunities in Stanford’s vision science labs.”

Mahajan continued, “As a surgeon, I apply highly structured teaching methods in the operating room to train residents and vitreoretinal fellows. I’ve adapted those teaching methods to the lab and have seen my undergrads, interns, postdocs, and Ph.D. students thrive. We are always thinking of ways to create the best possible learning environment to match the trainee.” 

Young Joo and Soo Hyeon developed a teaching program that introduces budding scientists to on-going projects and guides them to conduct meaningful experiments. This guidance includes a broad spectrum of research assessments including problem recognition, reference investigation, experimental design, bench skills, rational troubleshooting, data translation, oral presentations, and scientific writing. 

Elana said, “Young Joo spent a great deal of time helping me improve my scientific writing skills, which was instrumental in my Ph.D. applications and in my NSF research proposal. Soo Hyeon served as my primary supervisor and advised me continuously: always thoughtfully answering my questions, validating my ideas, and helping me correct/learn from mistakes. Dr. Mahajan changed my life by giving me a chance to see what I was truly capable of by hiring me two years ago. It was like he could see potential in me that I couldn't see for myself.”  

During Elena’s two years in the lab, her primary focus was to investigate the molecular mechanisms of an enzyme associated with multiple diseases, including age-related macular degeneration. Aside from performing biochemical and cell assays to test small-molecule inhibitors of the target enzyme, she was also responsible for creating a new “disease-in-a-dish” model to elucidate the effects of this enzyme on human immune and eye cells derived from human stem cells. 

Elena said, “Because of Dr. Mahajan, I was able to contribute to publications, present at conferences, and, ultimately, achieve my goal of getting into graduate school. Naturally I learned an enormous amount from him in the way he could always come up with the next best scientific question and tie data together into a publication, but I am most grateful for his faith in my ability as a scientist, a confidence boost that will help me start my Ph.D. on the right foot.”

When asked how she would advise new trainees, Elena said, “My advice to new lab members would be to trust Dr. Mahajan's judgment, as he's rarely wrong and his scientific intuition tends to be spot on. If you put in the work, the Mahajan team will guide you to wherever you want to go next in your career.”

Elena is leaving the Mahajan Lab with a new vision of herself as a scientific leader who drives research projects forward. It's an undertaking she does not take lightly.

She said, “Research is supposed to hard because no one has done it before, a lesson that I will carry with me to grad school and beyond.”

“One of the most satisfying aspects of my job is training young, independent, skilled scientists of the future. I am confident Elena will make important scientific discoveries in human disease, and that can have as much or more impact for patients as what we do in the operating room,” said Mahajan.