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Prebys Research Hero: Awardee

Xin Jin

Assistant Professor, Neuroscience

Scripps Research

Dr. Jin is working on approaches to understanding the cellular underpinnings and fundamental principles of brain development, which will allow us to understand how diseases like autism spectrum disorder and schizophrenia, among others, progress.

“The kind of single cell genomic experiment that, twenty years ago, would’ve crashed the entire country’s biomedical budget can be done today in one lab by a researcher single handedly within a week.”

- Dr. Xin Jin

Dr. Xin Jin Attempts to Unravel the Mysteries of the Mind

Dr. Xin Jin, Assistant Professor of Neuroscience at Scripps Research Institute, can trace her career as a researcher to the pictures her plant biologist grandfather drew of plants when she was a young girl in China. The beautiful complexity of leaves and roots, coupled with the elaborate Latin names, transfixed her. She also learned that two plants that looked alike could be quite different – one could be medicine and the other could be poison. This understanding would come in quite handy eventually. 

 

She was recently awarded a $500,000 Prebys Research Heroes grant, part of a $10 million two-year initiative that celebrates the contributions female scientists make in the field of biomedical and medical research, and which honors outstanding San Diego scientists as a key lever to create a more innovative, equitable, and collaborative medical research system. 

 

Dr. Jin’s fascination with the biological world led her to move to the US to study chemistry at MIT, a huge leap for an eighteen-year-old. “When you’re that young, you don’t think about it, but like in retrospect I think, holy cow,” she says. Dr. Jin loved her experience at MIT and appreciates the chemistry education she received but also felt herself drawn to biological systems. “I chose the most complex system to work with in graduate studies – the nervous system.” She likens the brain cells to a “little village of citizens.” While all different, they need to work together to keep the community functioning. Different cells, like inhabitants of a city, behave differently when they experience changes in the environment. This innate way of thinking about how the brain functions has been her research focus at Scripps Institute.  

 

As science has mapped the human genome, it has begun to identify genes that are associated with diseases and disorders, including autism spectrum disorder and schizophrenia – yet little is known about these genes, their origins, and how their changes could cause disease. Dr. Jin is working on approaches to understanding the cellular underpinnings and fundamental principles of brain development, which will allow us to understand how these diseases progress.  

 

Despite the brain’s complexity, Dr. Jin remains optimistic about discovering mechanisms for brain diseases. The evolution of technologies such as CRISPR-Cas9 gene editing (like having a precise pair of molecular scissors to make specific changes to the DNA in living cells) and single-cell RNA sequencing (like listening to the chatter of every cell in a crowd, rather than everyone at once) has dramatically improved the number of cells she can study at one time. Her work combines these two sophisticated technologies in new and very promising ways. She marvels, “The kind of single cell genomic experiment that, twenty years ago, would’ve crashed the entire country’s biomedical budget can be done today in one lab by a researcher single handedly within a week.” 

Dr. Jin is almost matter-of-fact while dealing with such complex operations. As a PhD student, she studied a very simple worm called C. elegans, which has a compact ‘brain’ with 302 neurons.  “Working with such an elegant nervous system is extremely satisfying.” The “clean experiments” taught her how to see complex systems like the human brain, which has approximately 86 billion neurons, with a deductive eye. “Whenever I’m confused or perplexed by the complexity of our brain, I think about the principles that we learned from an animal that can learn and navigate with only 302 neurons.”  

 

Whether considering the simplicity of a worm or the complexity of the brain, Dr. Jin embraces the ambiguity that the future of science can hold. For the young scientists early in their career, she says, “the tools and technologies you want to use in the future may not even exist yet today.” After all, scientific quests are a moving target. With the new tools at her fingertips, “It just opens new doors for understanding the system in different ways.” 

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