graphic

Xin Lu in Beijing outside the Cancer Institute of the Chinese Academy of Medical Sciences.

Xin Lu was born in Guiyang, the capital city of Guizhou province, in the People's Republic of China. She studied Biochemistry at Sichuan University and received her BSc in 1982. She subsequently obtained her MSc degree from the Cancer Institute of the Chinese Academy of Medical Sciences and Peking Union Medical School in Beijing. Xin worked there for another year as a Research Assistant following graduation and then, in 1986, she was awarded a research training fellowship from the International Agency for Research on Cancer from the World Health Organisation (WHO). Since then she has worked in the UK, initially as a PhD student at the Clare Hall laboratories of the Imperial Cancer Research Fund. On completion of her PhD in 1991 Xin moved to the Biochemistry Department at Dundee University to carry out her postdoctoral training. She joined the Ludwig Institute for Cancer Research (LICR) at the end of 1993 as an Assistant Member and became a Member of the LICR in 2000. She is now the Director of Research at the University College London Branch.

Xin's research has focused on the functional interplay of oncogenes and tumour suppressor genes. She recently identified the ASPP family of proteins and is investigating their biological importance. The three members of the family, ASPP1, ASPP2 and iASPP, all bind to p53. ASPP1 and ASPP2 stimulate the apoptotic function of p53, but iASPP is an inhibitor. Hence, downregulation of ASPP1 and ASPP2 or upregulation of iASPP is likely to play an important role in tumour development and response to therapy.

In the interview that follows, Fiona Watt, Editor-in-Chief of JCS, asks Xin about her experiences as a woman in science.

FMW:What changes for women in science have you observed during the course of your career?

XL: In 1982, the director of the biggest and most prestigious Cancer Institute in China (Chinese Academy of Medical Sciences), where I did my master's degree, was a woman. Almost 40% of the group leaders in that Institute were women. Therefore, the low percentage of female group leaders in UK institutes and universities was one of the culture shocks I experienced when I arrived in London in 1986.

I grew up in China with the mentality that `women are half of the pillars that support the sky' (men being the other half). In all cities, women worked as hard as men and at home they shared house duties. This kind of life style is at least true for many Chinese families I know, from my parents' generation to my own. For men to look after children is as common as for women. Additionally, most work places provide childcare facilities. This is perhaps one of the most important reasons why women in China can work equally as hard as their male colleagues. As most of my life in China has been associated with people working in universities and hospitals, this was my view of how scientific families would be.

Fortunately, my early scientific life in the UK did not significantly alter my view of how a typical scientific family life should be, because my PhD supervisor was a woman, Birgit Lane. Through her I got to know many successful female scientists. Furthermore, I was also lucky to have a very supportive postdoctoral mentor, David Lane. Therefore, the reality did not sink in until I started my own group and family. Although I personally received huge support from the Ludwig Institute for Cancer Research, I was amazed at how few female professors there are at UK institutes and universities. I was also astonished to learn how much harder it is for women in the UK to have a career as well as children compared with women in countries such as China.

FWM: How has your research career impacted on your personal life and vice versa?

XL: I met my husband during my BSc study in Sichuan University. We were in the same class, reading Biochemistry. Subsequently, we both went to the Cancer Institute in Beijing to study for our MSc degrees. One year after our marriage, I came to the UK as a visiting scientist and my husband stayed in Beijing for another year before joining me. He obtained his PhD in the UK two years after me.

Because of the practical difficulties of combining children with studying for a PhD and commencing postdoctoral training, we did not have our first child until 10 years after our marriage. From this point of view, my research career might have affected my personal life to a certain extent. Nevertheless, I am fortunate to have a very supportive husband who is willing to sacrifice his scientific career for me and spend more time looking after our two daughters at the moment. Without his support, I would never have made it to the position I have today. I owe him a great deal and I am privileged to have him as my husband. Similarly, my father has also been very supportive of me in my pursuit of a career in science, even though my current location means that I am not able to see him very often. Hence, I have been very fortunate that my research career has been facilitated by my personal life.

FWM:Do you feel that being a woman is an inherent advantage/disadvantage for a career in science. Why?

XL: This is a question I could not answer easily, although being a Chinese woman is definitely more of a disadvantage than being either Chinese or a woman. I have been in the UK for almost 18 years and London will soon be the city where I have lived the longest. Although I am now a British citizen, I have the Chinese genes and I still keep my Chinese name. I learnt English late in life (during my PhD) and the most obvious disadvantage I had, and still have, is language. I have to work much harder than my native English-speaking colleagues to achieve the same status. It takes me longer to write a paper than my English-speaking colleagues. Occasionally, a manuscript is criticized mainly on the grounds of its English, even though it was proofread by a native English-speaking professor.

At many meetings, people assume that I am a Chinese person working in a westerner's laboratory. Recently, a security person in New York airport was surprised to see me holding a ticket with the name Professor Lu printed on it. She asked me: `Are you a professor?' I suppose that, being a petite Chinese woman, I do not match the traditional image of a professor in the west. I often wonder what people would think of me if I were a six-foot-tall native English-speaking man. Well, this is a question I will never find the answer for.

FMW:What are your remaining career ambitions?

XL: Being Chinese, I tend to see things from a Yin and Yang point of view. This is perhaps a true reflection of my research interests and my career path. I started my research career in oncogenes in China and moved on to study tumour suppressor genes in the UK. I have been interested in the inter-relationship of oncogenes, such as Ras, Myc and E2F, and tumour suppressor genes, including Rb and p53. I am interested in their roles in controlling cell fate, that is to live or to die.

The ASPP family of proteins we identified recently fits into the Yin and Yang philosophy. ASPP1 and ASPP2 promote cell death, whereas iASPP inhibits cell death. Therefore, they act as Yin and Yang factors in regulating cell fate. In addition to regulating p53 and its family members, the ASPP family of proteins have many binding partners, such as Bcl-2, PP1, APCL, p65NF-kB, YAP and APP-BP1. In the immediate future, I would like to work out the biological function of the ASPP family of proteins. If opportunity allows, I would like to take some of my discoveries into the clinic. Finally, I would like to build more scientific links between China and the west, the UK in particular.