With Researcher Spotlights, the Microbial Systems Initiative aims to introduce you to the breadth and diversity of research interests and potential growth opportunities at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign campus. We hope that by highlighting both the researchers and their research, we can help you to learn more about and connect with your colleagues to enhance multidisciplinary research and education in microbial sciences here at Illinois.
Wenyan Mei, PhD
Department of Comparative Biosciences
College of Veterinary Medicine
Wenyan Mei is a professor in the Department of Comparative Biosciences in the College of Veterinary Medicine. She earned her Ph.D from Shanghai Institute of Biochemistry and Cell Biology, Chinese Academy of Sciences and completed a postdoc at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine. Mei investigates the reciprocal interactions between the host and gut microbiota and their impact on host health. The establishment of a mutualistic relationship between the host and gut microbiota during the neonatal stage, the contribution of disrupted host-gut microbiota interactions to disease pathogenesis, such as colitis and colorectal cancer, and the potential use of prebiotics and/or probiotics-based treatment to modulate the intestinal microbiota for improving host health are key research areas. Current work has included the development of knockout mouse models and germ-free zebrafish lines.
Do you have a personal story to share or path that led to your interest in this area of study?
Yes. I was trained to study early embryogenesis using Xenopus and zebrafish as model systems when I was a graduate student and a postdoc fellow. After I started my independent research, I discovered that the zebrafish mutant I used for studying early embryogenesis had intestinal homeostasis defects. By studying the intestinal defects in this mutant fish line, I realized that the intestine is an excellent organ system for studying adult tissue regeneration and the impact of gut microbes on host health. Since then, I expanded my research model system to the mouse model because of its high similarity to the human.
How will your work help to improve society or reach people?
Gastrointestinal diseases affect millions of people worldwide, which not only reduces the life quality of patients but also results in significant economic burden to the families and society. Many scientists work hard to discover the causes and pathogenesis of gastrointestinal diseases to improve early diagnosis, prevention, and treatment. I am proud to be a member of this research community and hope to give my contribution. The two diseases I am currently studying are necrotizing enterocolitis and inflammatory bowel disease-associated colorectal cancer, which are associated with dysregulated host and microbe interactions.
What part can researchers in your field play, in and out of the lab, in addressing current local, national, and/or global challenges?
A critical role for the researchers in my field is to conduct scientific research in the lab to build the knowledge basis required for improving early diagnosis, prevention, and treatment of the gastrointestinal diseases. Researchers can also help the society by engaging with the public and using their discoveries to help people develop a healthy lifestyle. In addition, Researchers in my field have been working with policy makers on decisions that could impact the well-being of our society such as food production, medical care, etc.
Part of MSI’s mission is to support high-quality education and professional development experiences for trainees. How do you support this mission through your teaching and mentorship?
I always tell my students that pursuing a PhD is a challenging yet rewarding process. My mentoring philosophy is that students should use this opportunity to not only build the skills and knowledge required for their future career, but also learn how to work hard, work smart, learn from failure, be persistent, be responsible, be respectful, and be a team player. For teaching, I believe that students learn better when they can apply the knowledge to real-life examples. So, I use a lot of real-life examples to explain class contents.
How does being part of the microbial systems community (MSI) impact your research?
Interdisciplinary research is essential for great discoveries. Faculty members in the microbial systems community have different expertise that can help each other to achieve their research goals. I am grateful to have the opportunity joining the community. I look forward to collaborating with our colleagues for new discoveries that can help treating the gastrointestinal diseases.
Do you want to tell us about any projects or activities that you are particularly excited about right now?
Yes. My lab recently generated a colitis-associated colorectal cancer mouse model and discovered microbes that are associated with colorectal cancer. We are currently investigating whether and how such microbes promote colorectal cancer development.