Faculty Profile: Sam Wang
Associate professor, Department of Molecular Biology and the Princeton Neuroscience Institute
Sam Wang, who came to Princeton in 2000, is determined to unlock the secrets of the cerebellum—that important region of the brain that integrates sensory information and coordinates action and movement.
He knows he is in the right place to pursue this work.
"I chose Princeton because I wanted to be at a university, where cross-disciplinary work is easier than at most medical centers," said Wang. "Princeton is particularly strong in math and physics, which are important for my work, as well as many humanist disciplines that speak to neuroscience."
Wang grew up in California and studied physics at the California Institute of Technology. Seeking his Ph.D. at Stanford University, he switched to neuroscience. He has worked at Duke University as a postdoctoral fellow and aided political leaders as a Congressional Science Fellow. After completing his postdoctoral studies, he spent two years at Bell Laboratories in Murray Hill, N.J., where he learned to use pulsed lasers to study brain signaling before coming to Princeton.
In his Princeton lab, Wang is currently studying Purkinje cells, which are found in the middle layer of the cerebellum and are the only route for ferrying information out. Normal functioning of Purkinje cells is needed to refine movement and cognition.
Understanding how the cells work together and what can go wrong could help Wang develop insights into diverse neurological problems ranging from movement disorders to autism.
Wang, who has published more than 40 articles on the brain in leading scientific journals, says the answers may rest in part in the fact that the cerebellum processes information by its whole ensemble of parts. Until recently, scientists lacked the capability of studying the entire "circuit" of a thought through the cerebellum.
Wang's lab monitors what whole groups of cells are doing by using lasers to detect sequences of chemical signals emitted by thousands of Purkinje cells as they receive then transmit information.
"We want it so that the whole choir is available to you," said Wang. "You wouldn't know if you only worked on one cell."
In addition to the cerebellum, Wang has an interest in finding principles of brain function that span the evolutionary tree. He has taken a physicist’s perspective in searching for “brain invariants” that must be conserved for animals to compete and survive. A team of undergraduate and graduate students in his lab recently has found that the time taken for signals to cross the brain may be nearly the same in diverse brains, from shrews and mice to humans and whales.
On a broader scale, Wang's educational reach extends past the laboratory and classroom in his books, popular articles and efforts to convey neuroscience to interested nonscientists.