Since he was young, Chih-Wei Joshua Liu ’22 has always known he wanted to be a “doctor-researcher”, pursuing research at the intersection of basic science and medicine.
“Growing up, I wanted to do work that actually helps people,” says Liu. “I also wanted to deepen our understanding of the universe. Physics describes the behavior of nature. From the equations we can deduce the behavior. In biology and medicine, this behavior is extremely complex. I’ve always wondered how these sciences fit together: if we can put the beautiful complexity of nature into the language of mathematics, then the world makes sense.
As the son of a medical doctor/computer biologist, he was exposed to a life in research early on. Her family moved from Taipei to Dallas, Texas, and the San Francisco Bay Area before returning to Taiwan during her high school years when her father joined the faculty of the National Taiwan Institutes of Health Research.
He participated in the Biology Olympiad while at the National Experimental High School, a Taiwanese government-run international school for the overseas-raised children of Hsinchu Science Park employees. Hsinchu Science Park is centered on Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company, which was founded by MIT Corporation board member Morris Chang ’52, SM ’53, ME ’55.
“People at my high school think MIT is a place where you can make a difference in the world,” Liu says. Attracted to the Institute, Liu and his twin brother, Chih-Lun Julian, applied to MIT. His brother was then more interested in computational linguistics, while he was drawn to biochemistry and computational biology.
“Most of the most important condensate research has been done at MIT,” he says. “I started attending a book club on biomolecular condensates during my first semester as a freshman and realized that to really understand condensates I needed statistical thermodynamics. I was disappointed to learn that I couldn’t go very far without physics.
Having struggled with physics in high school, he was apprehensive about the Institute’s General Physics (GIR) requirements. “When I took 8.01 with the teacher Kiyoshi MasuiI realized that MIT physics – specifically the famous TEAL [Technology-Enhanced Active Learning] format used for 8.01 and 8.02 – is quite different from multiple choice AP physics.
With a solid understanding of Newtonian mechanics, he pushed himself to take the more difficult follow-up course, 8.022 (Physics II: Electricity and Magnetism). From there, he surprised himself by declaring his major in physics.
“The physics GIRs pushed me to diversify academically. I did 8.01 my second year and enjoyed helping other students develop physics skills and interests. »
He moved away from biomolecular condensates and continued his research in other areas of biophysics, beginning by working on an experimental evolutionary approach to therapeutic microbiome engineering with Prof. Jeff Gore.
“A long-standing goal in medicine is the ability to tailor microbes to the specific metabolic needs of patients; external microbes with potentially useful functions generally do not survive when inserted into patient microbiomes,” he says. “We evolved bacteria isolated from the human gut to degrade the compound that causes kidney stones. I found this project exciting because we used mathematical modeling to control the evolutionary trajectory of bacteria in the laboratory, as well as to design something that could have real medical applications.
In 2020, he started working with Professor Nikta Fakhri on machine learning approaches to measure entropy production in biological systems.
“Physicists believe that the irreversibility of time is a key property of life; biological processes irrevocably increase the entropy of the universe,” he says. “However, it is difficult to really measure irreversibility. We use a new machine learning algorithm to do just that. Rho GTPases are a conserved regulator of cell division in almost all animals, including humans and starfish that we use experimentally. Using our neural network, we quantitatively measured the arrow of time in this crucial biological system; Rho is implicated in cancer, among other diseases.
He presented this work at the March meeting of the American Physical Societyand plans to submit a joint first-author manuscript for review soon.
Support mental well-being
“I know a lot of people who have struggled with mental health issues,” he says. “MIT is a pretty stressful place, and a lot of people struggle when they get here. That’s something I really wanted to get involved in.
This drew him to pressing mental health issues on and off campus.
During the pandemic, he joined the MIT Wellness Ambassadors to distribute Covid-19 guidelines and personal protective equipment to students remaining on campus during the pandemic. As president of active minds and peer earshe led the merger of MIT’s two mental wellness peer education groups and worked with Student Welfare Office and clinicians from Mental Health and Student Counseling Services provide active listening training for undergraduates and organizations.
Last summer, as PKG Social Impact Intern at the Department of Psychiatry at Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH), he used instant smartphone surveys to track time use in people with schizophrenia spectrum and bipolar spectrum disorders. Analyzing the data, he saw the emergence of the effects of race and socioeconomic status on functioning in people with serious mental illnesses, which he writes about for the journal Clinical Psychological Sciences.
“I hope my work will help future psychiatrists address racial and socioeconomic inequalities in the care of people with serious mental illnesses,” he says.
In his second project for MGH, he used instant smartphone surveys to track hallucinations and metacognitive processes in people with schizophrenia. “By analyzing this data, we were able to establish a link between metacognitive errors and hallucinations in people with schizophrenia,” he says. This manuscript will be submitted in June.
For his own method of stress release, in his freshman year he shared his love of post-hardcore punk rock with a 2 a.m. show on WMBR, until he realized it didn’t fit his schedule. He is president of MIT Physics Student Societywhich organizes events for Course 8 undergraduates such as study breaks, movie nights and the annual PRISM Research Conference. He served on the Physical Values Committeea departmental committee of faculty, staff, and students working together to improve recruitment of underrepresented physics students at MIT and to support more inclusive faculty councils.
He also served as community service president and associate member educator of his fraternity, Phi Kappa Theta. As chairman of community services, he procured 12,000 face masks from the Taiwanese government during the 2020 mask shortage in the United States and organized a fundraiser to purchase these masks and donate them to Beth Israel. Deaconess Medical Center. “It was one of my defining experiences at MIT,” he says.
Liu is also an avid hiker and enjoys visiting the area’s tidal pools to study marine invertebrates.
Next stop: Research and MD-PhD
He applies to MD-PhD programs to pursue research at the intersection of biostatistics and statistical mechanics. In the meantime, he will continue his research in Fakhri’s group, studying the “non-reciprocal” phases of matter recently identified in drug-resistant bacteria.
As a future medical physicist, Liu hopes to apply the mathematical techniques he learned in his physics class to help people struggling with mental health issues.
“I hope to apply fundamental physics to pressing human health issues,” he says. “Non-equilibrium thermodynamics has recently proven its potential in fundamental biology. I believe that the same theoretical framework could be equally insightful in translational medicine.
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