Dr. Jingyi Fei

Written by Dr. Vidhyadhar Nandana

“Seeing is believing. I fell in love with microscopy when I first started graduate school” recalls Dr. Jingyi Fei who studies RNA mediated gene regulation using state of art single molecule microscopy methods. She completed her PhD studies under the mentorship of Prof. Ruben Gonzalez at the Columbia University and gained postdoctoral experience with Prof. Taekjip Ha at University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign.  Dr. Fei is currently an Assistant Professor at the University of Chicago where she started her research group in 2016. Dr. Fei has received numerous awards including NIH Director’s New Innovator award, and Searle Scholar award which makes grants to exceptional young faculty.

Fei lab uses advanced techniques to directly visualize molecules through microscopy learning key details regarding their localization and interaction(s) with other molecules. “It is even more amazing that with modern technologies, you can observe biological processes with single-molecule sensibility plus superior spatial and temporal resolution” explains Dr. Fei with excitement.

Currently, her lab is working on bacterial regulatory RNAs and their associated RNA binding proteins. She is particularly intrigued about “T-box” riboswitches, a class of regulatory RNAs that recognize unaminoacylated transfer RNAs (tRNAs) and help maintain amino acid homeostasis. T-box riboswitches serve as excellent paradigms to understand not only RNA-based regulation, but also the mechanism of how one RNA molecule can recognize and/or bind to another RNA molecule. Her lab also studies another class of regulatory RNAs, namely small RNAs (sRNAs) which target mRNAs through base pairing interactions to regulate gene expression. Dr. Fei’s findings strongly suggest that her research can provide an important reference point for targeting regulatory RNAs as a therapeutic approach. By employing a combination of in-vitro and in-vivo single molecule fluorescence microscopy, and computational modeling, she is confident that her work will gain mechanistic insights into RNA mediated gene regulation at the molecular level.

“When you are facing multiple things at the same time, think about them carefully, make a list based on the priority and difficulty – this will help you better manage your time and be able to prioritize and to multitask.”

Dr. Fei is grateful to both her PhD and postdoctoral mentors for their support. “I remember my very first conversation with my PhD advisor Dr. Gonzalez. I was about to switch from a chemical physics major to RNA biophysics as a first-year graduate student and was eager to get advice on how to be a successful student. One piece of advice that I remember vividly from the conversation is that it’s very important to be organized on your experiments, your results, and your time. Something I’ve been trying to learn from my postdoc advisor Dr. Ha is to be open minded, to be able to dig out new questions, new challenges, and be able to see things from new angles.” She shares that advice as key lessons from her experience that helped shape up her career as a researcher.

Dr. Fei has encountered her career’s greatest challenge in 2021 during the COVID-19 pandemic when nearly all her lab members had left. While some had finished their appointments, some others changed their minds and left for industry. She feels that although the pandemic slowed down the research, the transition to new group of people was smoother mainly due to the team’s collective motivation, hard work and supportive nature. At the same time, Dr. Fei also had a beautiful change in life in the form of her newborn daughter. While she needs to spend lot of time and energy on her daughter, she feels that it’s a very positive change in her life. She is enjoying this new phase in her life and is successfully managing to balance her responsibilities between her duties in her lab and with her family.

“I think to balance the professional and personal lives, you really have to enjoy both parts and be positive and active.”

When asked about her experience with RNA society, “I really like how the talks are selected at the annual meeting. Vast majority of the talks are selected from the abstracts with an aim of giving junior researchers opportunities to share their results” replies Dr. Fei. When asked about her favorite RNA she says that “I love regulatory RNAs in general. I also think RNA G-quadruplexs are interesting and special.”  Dr. Fei has been reading RNA journal for several years. When asked about her favorite articles in RNA journal, she instantly recalled a study demonstrating the importance of C75 nucleotide of tRNA in peptide bond formation by Dr. Rachel Green’s lab in 2006. Another study by Dr. Tina Henkin’s group on the identification of ‘GA motif’ in T-box and S-box regulatory RNAs is also her favorite article apart from several exciting articles from various researchers.

You can find Dr. Fei on Twitter @feijingyi and contact her via links at her lab website https://feilab.uchicago.edu/index.html.