Dr. Zheng Ruan earns prestigious K99 grant, the first in Van Andel Institute’s history

It’s a major achievement in a scientist’s career when they earn their first federal grant. Not only do these grants provide vital funding, they also demonstrate the promise and innovation of research projects.

Among the most prestigious of these early grants is a K99/R00 from the National Institutes of Health, which provides support throughout the transition to a scientist’s first independent research position.

Earlier this summer, Dr. Zheng Ruan, a postdoctoral fellow in the labs of Dr. Juan Du and Dr. Wei Lü, earned the first K99/R00 award in VAI’s 26-year history. Dr. Ruan is a structural biologist, a scientist who uses cutting-edge technology to visualize the tiny molecules responsible for our health and, when things go wrong, for disease.

VAI Voice caught up with Dr. Ruan to discuss his research, the importance of the award and what first inspired him to become a scientist.

Dr. Zheng Ruan, Postdoctoral Fellow

What do you study?
Dr. Ruan: The accumulation of acid in the human body can have severe consequences and underlies many diseases. For example, prolonged and intense exercise can result in acid accumulation in the bloodstream and cause muscle fatigue and damage. Stroke is an example of a disease intensified by acid-induced tissue damage in our brain.

My research aims to understand how the cells in our body sense and respond to the acidic environment. In particular, I found a channel protein located at the cell surface that plays a critical role in controlling the ion flux and cell volume when a cell’s environment becomes acidic.

A better understanding of this process would allow scientists to better understand how mammalian cells adapt to different environments and also inform strategies to alleviate conditions caused by acidic accumulation.

Why is understanding the structure of ion channels important?
Dr. Ruan: The cells in our body are compartmented by membranes to ensure various processes occur efficiently. Maintaining different ion compositions in different parts of cells is an important task. Ion channels are key proteins that make this possible. They are like gates that help cells receive messages, or signals, about their surroundings.

By revealing the atomic structures of ion channels, we will be able to see how they work. This will allow scientists to understand how various ion channel modulators control channel activity. These insights are vital for a number of applications, such as the development of life-saving drugs and insecticides/repellents for the benefit of human beings.

What does it mean to you to have earned a K99? How will it support your research?
Dr. Ruan: The K99/R00 award is a special type of grant from National Institutes of Health that facilitates the transition from a mentored postdoc position to a tenure-track independent position. Because of this, the K99/R00 award also is named the “Pathway to Independence Award.” It will certainly have a positive impact on my research career.

The K99 phase will support me as I expand my skills and horizons at Van Andel Institute so I will be better prepared for independence. Obtaining the K99 is highly competitive, as it not only requires a solid and viable research plan but also a clear training plan for my future success.

During the R00 stage, my lab will receive funding for three years to accumulate preliminary data with the aim of ultimately obtaining an R01 grant.

Why did you become a scientist?
Dr. Ruan: My father always encouraged me to read science books when I was a child and I’m deeply curious about the scientific knowledge behind our everyday life. Almost every teacher/mentor during my career encouraged me to continue pursuing science and I also feel I’m talented to solve various puzzles in the lab.

My transition to becoming a structural biologist stems from my time in the lab of my Ph.D. mentor, Dr. Natarajan Kannan, where I learned how evolution has shaped the functional and structural diversity of protein kinases.

As a postdoc in the labs of Dr. Juan Du and Dr. Wei Lü at Van Andel Institute, I furthered my knowledge in membrane structural biology. While some might find it tedious to work in the lab, the ability to understand how various molecules in our body work makes me feel that I’m an explorer and always headed to the unknown.

“Being able to discover something that no one else knows in the world and expand the uncharted knowledge of human beings is a wonderful thing to do. I feel very fortunate to be able to do what I truly enjoy and find meaningful.”

– Dr. Zheng Ruan

Dr. Ruan is supported in part by the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke under award no. 1K99NS128258. The content is solely the responsibility of the authors and does not necessarily represent the official views of the National Institutes of Health.