Meet Pathway to Independence Award Winner Dr. Weizhen (Zane) Xie

Photo of Wiezhen (Zane) Xie, Ph.D., NINDS Training Highlight
Weizhen (Zane) Xie, Ph.D. Photo courtesy of Dr. Xie.

Weizhen (Zane) Xie, Ph.D., postdoctoral fellow in the NINDS Division of Intramural Research, recently received the NIH Pathway to Independence Award. This prestigious achievement provides 1-2 years of mentored support followed by 3 years of independent research funding. Dr. Xie is also the recipient of an NINDS Competitive Postdoctoral Fellowship Award and the NIH Fellows Award for Research Excellence.

Dr. Xie’s success stems from a drive to pursue his research interests, even in the face of real technical challenges. Towards the end of his graduate studies at the University of California, Riverside, Dr. Xie became aware of a limitation in his dissertation research—his recording techniques at the time were insufficient to explore the rapid formation of precise and vivid memories facilitated by deep brain structures, his main interest. Motivated to address the limitation, Dr. Xie decided to pursue further training in intracranial electrocorticography and was drawn to the work of Kareem Zaghloul, M.D., Ph.D., Senior Investigator in the Functional Neurosurgery Section. Dr. Xie joined his lab in 2018. 

Read on to learn more about Dr. Xie’s research interests and his mentorship philosophy as he transitions into the independent investigator phase of his award early next year:

How did you become interested in the field of memory and cognition?

I have always been intrigued by the complexity of the human mind and brain, ever since childhood. It fascinates me that a 3-pound organ in our body can control almost everything that defines us as human beings—from our capacity for beauty and creativity to our all-too-human flaws. So, when presented with the opportunity to study psychology and neuroscience, I jumped at it.

Through my studies, I have come to view the brain as an information processing system that takes in sensory input, stores information, and guides our behavior based on past experiences. I have become convinced that studying basic information-processing functions, such as memory formation and retrieval, is essential to unlocking the secrets of the mind and brain, including the mechanisms behind neurological and psychiatric conditions. Therefore, I have developed a deep interest in exploring memory through a neuroscientific lens, as I believe memory serves as a window into more complex mental functions such as social interaction, decision-making, and mental health.

Is there one area of study that stands out as particularly impactful in your body of work?

Over the years, I have been extremely fortunate to learn from various mentors who have ingeniously and tirelessly taught me systematic ways to deconstruct and investigate fuzzy concepts like memory. Through this process, I have come to understand that achieving convergence among data gained from different techniques and diverse populations is not only useful, but also essential to overcoming the inherent limitations of any one method in studying the intricacy of the human mind and brain. This lesson has been hard-earned, as it took me a while to gather sufficient evidence to test my dissertation idea.

With that being said, I would also like to emphasize that research doesn't always have to be filled with detours or delays. As a researcher, I have also been fortunate enough to experience moments of insight that are so unforgettable and valuable. The overwhelming consistency in people's memory of certain things in their daily lives is a phenomenon that intrigued me. Thanks to a collaboration with colleagues at the NIMH, I delved deeper into this area and developed a mathematical model to explain some of these patterns. We then put this model to the test using diverse methods, which allowed me to expand my postdoc research into a new field. Read articles: Memorability of words in arbitrary verbal associations modulates memory retrieval in the anterior temporal lobe and NIH study finds out why some words may be more memorable than others

What are your research goals with the NIH Pathway to Independence award?

My proposed research is driven by a curiosity to understand why some information is more memorable than others and why some people may forget commonly memorable things. I believe this phenomenon implies that the brain prioritizes specific aspects of information to facilitate memory encoding and retrieval, and that some pathological processes either due to aging or neurological disorders may compromise this function.

The short-term goal of my research, therefore, is to investigate this memorability phenomenon at the behavioral, neuronal, and network levels, aiming to understand how the brain optimizes its memory functions in an information-rich environment. The technical and conceptual training I will receive during the mentored phase of this award will play a critical role in achieving my long-term goal of understanding and mitigating memory losses, especially in aging or clinical populations. It is concerning to note that nearly 1 in 9 adults over 50 years old in the US report failures to remember commonly memorable things from everyday life. With strong support from the NIH, I am fortunate to have the opportunity to pursue these research goals. I look forward to continuing this work as I transition to my future position at the University of Maryland, College Park in January 2024.

Can you tell us a little about your mentorship philosophy and any role that mentorship has played in your own success?

Mentorship is an integral part of academic success, benefitting both the mentor and the mentee. In my experience, effective mentorship involves a balance of providing guidance and support, while also encouraging independence and self-discovery. My mentorship philosophy is centered around the idea that everyone has unique strengths and challenges, and it is important to tailor mentorship to the individual needs and goals of each mentee. Overall, I view mentoring as an opportunity to clarify research and career goals, which would require a close collaboration between the mentor and mentee.

As for my personal growth, I owe a great debt of gratitude to the numerous mentors who have provided me with guidance and support, helped me develop my skills and knowledge, and encouraged me to take risks and pursue my passions. I am especially grateful for the opportunity to learn from mentors in diverse fields and cultural backgrounds, each offering unique perspectives that have shaped my research program. Despite the differences in their areas of expertise and mentoring styles, I have found that they all share a common trait of generosity with their time, patience with students, enthusiasm for scientific discussion, and excitement for students' progress, large or small. They also exhibit genuine humility and a strong sense of service through teaching or medical practice. Reflecting on what I have learned from them, I am committed to following in their footsteps and providing my own mentees with the highest level of support possible.

What advice would you give to trainees who are interested in an independent research career?

Growing up in a non-academic family, I realized that the academic career path is not necessarily easier or more difficult than other paths, as each path comes with its own unique rewards and challenges. Thus, it is crucial to identify what motivates you and aligns with your passions. In my experience, it is helpful to trust the process and have faith in your abilities, while retaining a sense of service to others through your teaching or research. Even in challenging or uncertain times, it is important to keep moving forward and seek guidance and support from mentors and colleagues. I have learned that failures and setbacks are inevitable, but they should be embraced as opportunities for growth and learning.

Finally, it is essential to prioritize physical and mental health. As one of my mentors, who is currently in his 90s, has demonstrated to me, a researcher's well-being can set the team up for long-term success.

Contributed by Shana R. Spindler, Ph.D., freelance science writer and former NIH postdoctoral fellow.