Haifan Lin made an early decision to pursue only projects that he felt passionate about. Physics and maths captivated him first. But when he heard the term 'genetic engineering', he thought he'd found the ultimate scientific feat. (See CV)
While a biology undergraduate at Fudan University in Shanghai, Lin became one of the first Chinese students to win a joint China–US biochemistry fellowship. He went to Cornell University, where he was fortunate in his adviser, Mariana Wolfner. A new assistant professor, Wolfner was just starting her own lab, focused on gender-specific gene expression. But she supported Lin in studying the genes responsible for initiating embryonic cell division. His success vindicated the risks he'd taken. “It also gave me the confidence that I could get a new project to work,” he says.
Seeking a fresh way to study cell division in development, Lin chose to work on stem cells as a postdoc with Allan Spradling at the Carnegie Institution of Washington, years before these cells became a household term. Although most such work was being conducted on mammalian cells, Lin focused on identifying stem cells in the fruitfly. He found that stem cells were not autonomous, as had been thought, but could have their function controlled by adjacent cells.
His achievements in stem-cell research paved the way to a faculty position at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina. There, Lin respectfully disregarded warnings from colleagues not to spread himself too thin, and opted to extend his stem-cell research in mammalian and even clinical directions. “I wanted to pursue interests that allowed me to see the bigger picture,” he says. But, he adds, it was more difficult than starting a new lab in his field of expertise. “We had to start over from square one — even learning how to determine the gender of mice,” he says.
In 1999, Lin started working with Duke researchers and clinicians to create an informal stem-cell programme, which eventually led to a university-supported programme co-directed with Brigid Hogan. He recently left to head a similar programme at Yale University. After a year of strategic planning, Yale leaders and Lin have created a new centre focused on fundamental stem-cell biology.
Lin's courageous approach to taking on new areas of research set him apart from other candidates, says deputy dean for scientific affairs at Yale's School of Medicine, Carolyn Slayman. But, his optimism, curiosity and, most importantly, his energy, she says, convinced everyone that he would set Yale's work apart from others.
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Gewin, V. Haifan Lin, director, stem-cell programme, Yale University, New Haven, Connecticut. Nature 443, 478 (2006). https://doi.org/10.1038/nj7110-478a