By Cara Penquite | Bond LSC
Growing up in a humble beach town in China, Aijing Feng dreamed of following the footsteps of her idol and Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates. Now halfway around the globe nimbly tapping a keyboard in her cubicle at the Bond Life Sciences Center, she realizes the shortcomings of her tech-giant fantasy.
“For a commercial thing, you can have lots of money, you can earn lots of money, you can have [a] great life,” Feng said. “But when you [do] research, you can have ideas [that] something can change in your life. That might be awesome.”
Feng — a budding postdoctoral researcher in the Henry Wan lab — works tirelessly to find answers to her questions. Feng once attached cameras as a bioengineering Ph.D. student, to a drone to determine which plants in a field were under stress, a method that could help farmers know which portions of a field are unhealthy.
“We were trying to use technology to automatically detect and then tell humans how much water [plants] need and what environments influence the plant’s growth,” Feng said.
The colorful drone images show researchers the plants’ temperature, height and color. These factors indicate a crop’s health and nutrient supply so farmers can determine which areas of the field may need replanting or additional care. Feng integrated the drones with sensors and created software to stitch images of the field together to see it as a whole.
“I really enjoyed working with her because she can get things done,” Feng’s former mentor and principle investigator Jianfeng Zhou said. “Let’s say we have a paper we need to revise, she may finish within a couple days, but other people may need to take a couple weeks. She’s really hard-working.”
Even as a teenager, Feng knew she wanted to spend her days with fingers flying over a keyboard, and she attended South China Agricultural University in Guangzhou as a computer science undergraduate and master’s student. The starting point of her research soon blossomed friendship when her master’s advisor paired her with an undergraduate named Jian Liu.
Their minds working together pulled their hearts closer as well, and the two fell in love while working on lines of code. Now married, the couple lives in Columbia with their six-month-old daughter balancing family life alongside studies.
“It’s hard to balance, you just need to decide what you have to finish today or this week and what work you can delay,” Feng said.
Feng feels at home in Columbia preferring the small-town pace to the busy streets of Guangzhou. Dipping a toe into Mizzou’s resources, she starts her mornings swimming at the MizzouRec after taking her daughter to daycare.
She recalls days at the beach with her father trying, unsuccessfully, to teach her to swim through the rolling ocean waves. When she moved to Columbia it took a joint effort among her friends for her to learn, but now she incorporates a swim into every day.
“For years my father came to me and I could never learn,” Feng said. “One of my friends and my husband [taught me]. At the time I was a Ph.D. [student] and swimming was what I loved.”
In the afternoon, Feng delves into her research in the Wan lab at Bond LSC. Feng analyzes genomic data for the lab with the goal of developing broadly protective vaccines for various pathogens, such as influenza, which causes both seasonal and pandemic flue outbreaks in humans, and E. coli, which causes an illness in poultry.
“She’s doing computational biology to learn how diverse among pathogens at both genetical and antigenic levels and understand their risks to human and/or animal health, and then develop AI tools to design broadly protective vaccines for these diseases,” Wan said.
Wan recognizes Feng’s work ethic up close.
“She seems really passionate, and she works extremely hard,” Wan said. “She learns things quickly, and she is also a good communicator.”
Turning her hands over in rhythm with her light conversational voice, Feng is as personable as she is intelligent and values working alongside advisers.
“Each of my advisors taught me many things,” Feng said. “How to do research but also how to face your life, how to balance your life, how to schedule and manage your work and your life. They are very important people in my life.”
While still uncertain about what the future holds, Feng plans to remain in research rather than using her computer skills in the commercial world.
“I just care about coming up with good ideas and what makes me excited,” Feng said.