Three VP&S Scientists Selected as Paul A. Marks Scholars

Three early-career scientists at VP&S—X. Shawn Liu (Physiology & Cellular Biophysics), Xuebing Wu (Medicine), and Nikhil Sharma (Molecular Pharmacology & Therapeutics)—have been selected as 2021 Paul A. Marks Scholars.

Established in 2006, the Paul A. Marks Scholars Program honors the extraordinary legacy of the late Paul A. Marks, MD’49, by supporting the recruitment and retention of outstanding early career scientists with a primary tenure-track assistant professor appointment in one of the basic science departments at Columbia University Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons. The program funds up to three scientists at $100,000 per year for a period of three years.

Marks, who died in 2020, was an internationally renowned physician-scientist and an exceptional academic leader. Marks served as VP&S dean from 1970 to 1973 and vice president for medical sciences at VP&S from 1973 to 1980 before serving as president and CEO of Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center from 1980 to 1999.

Through his pioneering investigations in cancer biology and genetics, Marks helped reveal how cancer cells arise. He developed new chemotherapy and chemoprevention agents, including suberoylanilide hydroxamic acid, which transformed the treatment of cutaneous T-cell lymphoma and is currently undergoing trials to treat an array of cancers.

2021 Paul A. Marks Scholars

X. Shawn Liu, PhD | Physiology & Cellular Biophysics

Shawn Liu

X. Shawn Liu

X. Shawn Liu, PhD, began his appointment as a tenure-track assistant professor in the Department of Physiology & Cellular Biophysics in 2020. He was identified following a national search initiated by the department. Liu earned a BS in chemistry from Nankai University in China and a PhD in biology from Stanford University in 2013. His thesis work focused on the role of Polo-like kinase 1 in cell division and cancers. He was prolific as a graduate student, publishing a total of 14 papers in highly regarded scientific journals.

As a Damon Runyon fellow, he entered Rudolf Jaenisch’s lab at MIT to pursue postdoctoral training. There he focused on developing novel methods to edit the epigenome as a way to tackle neurological diseases. In a landmark 2016 paper in Cell he described a method to edit DNA methylation using a catalytically dead Cas9 (dCas9) fused to either a methyl transferase or a demethylating enzyme. He then demonstrated the rescue of Fragile X syndrome neurons by this editing tool in a proof-of-concept paper in Cell in 2018.

His Columbia lab is now fully staffed and producing intriguing data. Liu seeks to combine molecular tool development with genetic and genomic approaches to explore epigenetic mechanisms underlying normal physiological functions and to uncover the epigenetic basis of diseases to accelerate the development of therapeutics. His exciting research program brings a new dimension to the research portfolio of the broader Columbia University community.

Xuebing Wu, PhD | Medicine and Systems Biology

Xuebing Wu

Xuebing Wu

Xuebing Wu, PhD, a promising scientist in the field of RNA systems biology, joined Columbia in November 2018 and has just entered his third year as a tenure-track assistant professor with a joint appointment in the Department of Medicine and the Department of System Biology. He also is a member of the Cardiometabolic Precision Medicine Program, the Herbert Irving Comprehensive Cancer Center, and the Data Science Institute.

Wu earned his BS and MS degrees in control science and engineering from Tsinghua University in China and his PhD in computational and systems biology from MIT. He started his lab at Columbia with a vision to bridge gene control with disease mechanisms and therapeutics. He plans to do so by harnessing the power of genomics, machine learning, and CRISPR and through close collaboration with colleagues focusing on specific diseases—such as cardiovascular disease, heart failure, liver fibrosis in non-alcoholic steatohepatitis, pancreatic cancer, and lung cancer. His lab is both physically and functionally integrated into the Cardiometabolic Precision Medicine Program headed by Muredach Reilly, MBBCh.

Wu’s deep expertise in RNA, genomics, and CRISPR has already proved to be invaluable for other labs within the program, especially the Reilly lab, which is investigating the role of multiple long noncoding RNAs in cardiovascular disease and related metabolic disorders. In his own lab, Wu is developing a broadly applicable RNA-based CRISPR + artificial intelligence cell-targeting platform.

In addition to the Paul Marks Scholar Award, Wu has received a number of other distinctions, including the RNA Society/Scaringe Young Scientist Award, Pew-Steward Scholars Award, Pershing Square Sohn Prize, and NIH Director’s New Innovator Award.  

Nikhil Sharma, PhD | Molecular Pharmacology & Therapeutics

Nikhil Sharma, PhD

Nikhil Sharma

Nikhil Sharma, PhD, joined the Department of Molecular Pharmacology & Therapeutics as a tenure-track assistant professor in January 2021. His research focuses on cellular and molecular mechanisms underlying the neural basis of pain and inflammation. By integrating state-of-the-art computational, genomic, molecular genetics, and functional imaging approaches, Sharma’s research has provided a fundamentally new and comprehensive framework for understanding how organs signal painful information to the brain and how the brain signals back to the organs to address these stimuli.

One of his key goals is to develop new nonaddictive, pharmacological approaches to manage visceral and cutaneous pain as well as new pharmacological approaches to address deleterious reactions to pain. His research program broadly integrates into the Columbia community across campuses with evident connections to the systems biology and the microbiology & immunology departments.

As an undergraduate at Johns Hopkins University majoring in mathematics, Sharma worked in the laboratory of David Ginty, PhD. There, he began studying the nervous system, which he has continued.

For his doctoral studies, Sharma trained with Michael Greenberg, PhD, chair of the neuroscience program at Harvard Medical School. There he sought to address how sensory experience dependent gene transcription regulates synaptic plasticity. As a postdoctoral fellow he returned to Ginty’s lab to combine his research experiences to study the development and function of sensory neurons.

Sharma’s research at Columbia is a unique program that blends pieces of all prior experiences. He will aim to understand the neural circuits that encode painful/noxious stimuli and their subsequent processing by the nervous system.