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Call Him Johnny: Meet the New Director of the Center For Cancer Cell Biology, Immunology and Infection

Johnny He, PhD, is the new Director of the Center for Cancer Cell Biology, Immunology and Infection, and Discipline Chair for Microbiology and Immunology. He arrived on Dec. 23 from the University of North Texas Health Science Center, where he held the faculty rank of Regents Professor, the highest academic rank conferred by the UNT system, in addition to other top administrative posts in research.

He earned a PhD in molecular biology from New York University and completed postdoctoral training in molecular virology at the Aaron Diamond AIDS Research Center of The Rockefeller University and the Dana–Farber Cancer Institute of Harvard Medical School.

You graduated from college really young, at age 18. Why did you decide to become a scientist?

Two reasons: Curiosity. I am curious about everything. Problems. I like to solve problems. To do both, I had to attend grad school, where you learn that the most useful skill is critical thinking. To be a scientist is to immerse yourself in identifying issues, in solving problems and thinking critically.

An elevator pitch, please, on your research.

I use molecular biology skills to answer some basic questions about viruses. The two I am most curious about are HIV and HCV [Hep C]. I want to understand how viruses infect host cells, how they take advantage of the cells to reproduce. Most importantly, how does the virus infection cause disease? Eventually, we can use what we learn to develop therapeutics or therapeutic strategies.

You are in charge of one of our largest research centers, home to more than 60 research staff and faculty. What’s your leadership philosophy?

At my core, I am a servant leader. It’s my responsibility to articulate a clear vision, to show the way, tell people where we’re going. But I also prioritize mentoring and coaching my colleagues, and I consider my PhD students, in addition to fellow faculty, colleagues. Everyone calls me Johnny. I want to understand my people, build trust, really listen to them. I want to build a team with them. Success as a group or team will take us to the next level faster. It’s also important to acknowledge individual success. If someone gets an important grant or publication, or graduates, I take them to lunch. I pay, not the university. I like celebrating. Everyone is working under pressure, so it’s good to take a couple of hours to relax.

More than one-third of your trainees have been from backgrounds underrepresented in biomedical research. You’re a mentor for and member of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s Harold Amos Medical Faculty Development Program National Advisory Committee and you’re a recipient of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute Minority Student Mentoring Award. What’s your motivation?

I don’t see race or ethnicity or gender in my students. But I do see myself in minority students. I remember being the only one in a lab, department or school where not many looked like me. I have seen in the past how faculty look differently at minority students, question their abilities, apply certain misperceptions and stereotypes. The bigger picture is that a lack of diversity and equity in our labs and in graduate and postdoctoral research trickles down to create and reinforce disparities in health. I take people as individuals and I treat them with respect. I look for their strengths and we build on those strengths.

You have mentored dozens of graduate students and postdocs, many who are now faculty at top universities, and in your CV you write: “To teach/mentor is to inspire.” How do you inspire?

The reason I am where I am now is because I had a great mentor. He changed my life. He transformed me. The 20th century American writer William Arthur Ward said: “The mediocre teacher tells. The good teacher explains. The superior teacher demonstrates. The great teacher inspires.” The way I inspire is I really want to know my mentees. We work together off their strengths. I help them set goals. I facilitate, let them take the driver’s seat. Our communication is always two-way. I ask them what they think before I tell them what I think. They know my expectations and I provide timely feedback. But most importantly, I don’t yell or place blame. I want them to feel comfortable. I want them to be free of stress while working. For someone to be creative, their mind has to be free of stress.

According to the UNESCO Science Report “Towards 2030,” researchers make up 0.1 percent of the global population. Considering its practitioners are so rare, what has science done for us lately?

Before 1997, there were 10,000 new HIV infections per day and two million deaths per year related to HIV/AIDS. But in the late 1990s, we began to understand how the virus propagated inside cells. We were able to target, through specific steps, the life cycle of the virus. HIV is no longer a death sentence. The same is true for HCV and certain cancers. We need to do a better job of educating and communicating the value of science to both our internal and external stakeholders.

As you settled in at RFU this past winter, the coronavirus was spreading across China, your native country, and beyond. You’re an expert in host-virus interactions. How are you thinking about the epidemic?

There is so much we don’t know about COVID-19. We haven’t been able to produce vaccines for respiratory diseases like cold and influenza because the viruses are so smart, they keep changing. It’s the same for the novel coronavirus. We do not know where the virus came from and how it is transmitted. The main symptoms are fever, coughing and sneezing. The best way to avoid catching the infection is to stay away from crowds and from people who are coughing and sneezing, to wash hands frequently and to be vigilant of one’s own body temperature. Some researchers are using HIV drugs to treat the new virus, with some success. Vaccines are being explored. We need to figure out a smarter way, how to actually outsmart all these viruses.

How do you relax away from science?

I like listening to audiobooks, which I do a lot on flights and drives. My favorite genres are documentaries, because I like to understand real life, and autobiographies, especially by leaders. I have listened over and over to Barack Obama’s “Dreams of My Father.” I’m currently listening to “The Pioneers: The Heroic Story of the Settlers Who Brought the American Ideal West” and “The Moment of Lift: How Empowering Women Changes the World.”

Posted April 13, 2020
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