MCO graduate student Vivian Jou (G5) has been awarded an F31 Predoctoral Individual National Research Service Award by the National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases (NIAMS). The full-time research fellowship provides two years of funding in support of promising graduate students’ research projects.
“It feels great,” Jou says. “It’s also super-surprising, because I initially applied for it last year in the spring when I was a third year. I got a pretty good score and then didn’t hear back…Then this year I got the email a whole year after I had submitted it.”
Jou is studying mammals’ ability to regrow the tips of their fingers and toes as a member of Jessica Lehoczky’s lab at HMS. Stem cells and regeneration have long fascinated Jou, but initially she found the field of regenerative biology intimidating. However, rotating in Lehoczky’s lab convinced Jou to look into how and why the distal tips of digits can regrow when other mammalian tissues cannot.
“We use the mouse as a close mammalian analogy to humans, and I’m particularly interested in understanding why the regeneration is so limited to just the very distal part,” she explains. “To me, it’s fascinating that even if you cut just a little bit further down, it will end up in a scar or a little wound stump.”
For her thesis work, Jou is comparing the regenerative response in the digit tips to the scarring response further down using single cell analysis and other techniques. She hopes to identify pathways that explain the different responses in neighboring tissues.
Jou is currently analyzing single cell data from tissues that scar with the goal of identifying molecular pathways that explain why the adjacent regenerating tissues are different. She is also looking into the epigenetic patterns of a candidate gene that could play a role in regeneration.
“Working with Vivian on her project is a lot of fun—she is really adventurous in the lab,” says Jou’s advisor Jessica Lehoczky. “Her project has so many moving parts and she’s never afraid to follow the data, even if that leads her out of her technical or scientific comfort zone.”
Outside of the lab, Jou is involved in Equity, Diversity, Inclusion, and Belonging efforts in the department. In her third year, she was a Diversity, Inclusion, and Belonging Fellow. Her project was to interview the junior faculty and brainstorm ways to improve retention and ensure that the junior faculty have a positive experience. Afterward, she stayed on the EDIB community task force for a year.
These issues are close to Jou’s heart because of her experience moving from the North Shore of Chicago to the Bay Area as a teenager. “The Midwest is very different from the West Coast,” she says. “I think one of the very first thoughts I had was, ‘Oh my god, I was so sheltered when I was growing up before.’ I was very limited in my mindset…I think my move really made me appreciate having a diverse pool of people within my social circle or even within my community. And I think it’s important that belonging is part of that phrase, because I think it’s important that people can comfortably have their own identity but also feel like they’re part of a larger community.”
Jou can often be found listening to metal music on her headphones. Her other hobbies include cooking, working out, and reading sci-fi and fantasy novels.
She’s looking forward to conducting future experiments and says receiving the F31 is very validating. “My PI always says that I’m very self-critical about my work, and receiving the F31 is a pure positive moment that I can have where I can actually be proud of myself,”she says.