Season 2, Episode 1 - Wei-Zen Wei

Host Annmarie Caño speaks with academic leaders at Wayne State University to learn how they have developed their careers while empowering themselves and others.

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Episode notes

Wei-Zen Wei is a leader in cancer research and a professor of oncology at Wayne State University. Dr. Wei joins EmpowerED to Lead to shine a light on the knowledge she's gained throughout her 30-plus years heading a research lab — where, as she puts it, "we encounter questions that we cannot solve ourselves." She'll share how leadership's impact extends well beyond the leader and reveal how she guides others to spread their wings. 

Wei-Zen Wei sitting in front of a microphone wearing headphones and blue long-sleeve blouse

About Wei-Zen Wei

Wei-Zen Wei is a professor of oncology and the president of the Academy of Scholars at Wayne State University. Dr. Wei's groundbreaking work in cancer vaccines and cancer immunotherapy is internationally recognized. Since 1987, her lab has been supported with funding from the National Institutes of Health and other federal granting agencies.

Additional resources

Learn more about the Academy of Scholars.

Follow EmpowerED to Lead on Twitter @WSUFacSuccess.

Transcript

Annemarie Caño:

Welcome to EmpowerED to Lead, a Wayne State University podcast for academic leaders who are committed to empowering their community to succeed. I'm your host, Annmarie Cano, associate provost for faculty development and faculty success at Wayne State.

In this podcast, we'll explore the personal journeys of academic leaders, both current and emerging, to learn more about how they've developed their careers. We'll speak with faculty and staff about their work and how they have empowered themselves and others along the way. By doing this, we hope to empower listeners like you as you continue on your leadership path.

Today we're speaking with Wayne State University, Academy of Scholars president and Herrick endowed professor in oncology Wei-Zen Wei. Professor Wei is widely recognized for her pioneer work in cancer vaccines and cancer immunotherapy. Her lab has been continuously supported since 1987 with funding from the National Institutes of Health and other federal granting agencies.

The vaccines produced by her group are tested in human and feline trials with positive results. The model systems they developed are used globally for cancer research. Her students and postdocs have become leaders in their chosen fields to further the success of cancer prevention and treatment. Welcome to the podcast, Wei-Zen.

Wei-Zen Wei:              
Thank you. Glad to be here, Annmarie.

Annemarie Caño:        
Tell us a little bit about what you love about your job.

Wei-Zen Wei:              
Well, I have been doing cancer research, leading a cancer research lab really for over 30 years. You ask why you stay in the same line of work.

Annemarie Caño:       
Right.

Wei-Zen Wei:              
What we do is we identify important problems in this disease and we try to solve them. This give us the opportunity to work with really brilliant people. The intellectual stimulation is exciting, but what's the best is that if we work together, we can often find the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. That different people get together and we find a synergy and we can elevate our thinking and our doing to a level that we could not achieve by ourselves. At the end, when you see something, a new discovery, it is a great satisfaction. It feels like God shared a piece of his secret with you. It's hard to find the same satisfaction otherwise, so you get addicted to doing it.

Annemarie Caño:         
There's the intellectual creative stimulation, and then there's also the people.

Wei-Zen Wei:            
Yes.

Annemarie Caño:        
It sounds like being able to work with a variety of people who are inspiring.

Wei-Zen Wei:             
I think people is the key in research success. You can have the best equipment, you can have lots of money, but what you really need is that vibrant thinking, that motivation and the willingness to work together.

Annemarie Caño:      
I first met you in your Academy of Scholars role and I was wondering if you could tell me what you enjoy about being part of that community of scholars.

Wei-Zen Wei:               
It's really an immense honor actually to be elected into the Academy of Scholar. It's described as the highest honor bestowed upon a faculty by his peer. The scholars that were elected, all felt very honored to be in the society. The selection process is not just your ability, your achievement, but the integrity, the characteristics of a true scholar. So it is just a joy to be among this group of amazing people. 

They come from all different disciplines in the campus, so whatever challenge comes along, you have expertise on that. The mission of this Academy really is to elevate the creative and academic achievement and activities in Wayne State University. I think everyone takes it quite seriously and do our best toward that goal. So it's just a joy and an honor to be among that group.

Annemarie Caño:       
One of the things I appreciate about the most recent induction ceremony when you gave the welcome speech was how welcoming you were to all of the scholars and the guests who are in the room. I think sometimes people think of high-powered researchers as kind of in their own labs, not focusing on that human, that other side of the piece. And so, I'm wondering what kind of advice you would give to young scholars or even students who are really focused on the science or the creative activity or focused on the research and maybe they say, "I don't have time to build these relationships with other people, I need to focus on this work." What would you say to them?

Wei-Zen Wei:              
Thank you. It was great to have you, by the way, Annmarie-

Annemarie Caño:         
Oh, thanks.

Wei-Zen Wei:              
... at our induction ceremony. You really added color to the event. Thank you. It's very kind of you to say these nice words about our ceremony. I don't know that I'm special in a sense that I interact with people. I find that in scientific research you need depth and you need breath. To achieve the depth of seeing something that you cannot see before, you have to do it in your little environment. Shut your door and focus here, but to reach the breath, to reach beyond your field, to have synergy, it must happen by collaboration with different people, different scientists and people in different walks of life. I just find it enjoyable to interact with other brilliant people. It just makes me happy to see so many people in that evening gathering together and everybody is a nice and brilliant and contributing member. It's a family. To me, Academy of Scholars is a family and I welcome everybody like I would my family. I think it carried me a long way by they're kind of thinking.

Annemarie Caño:        
For junior scholars then, so it's important to do the work. Sometimes you're by yourself doing your writing or what analysis or whatever it is that you're doing, but you also need to put yourself out there. Because you might be missing out on connecting with these other brilliant minds as you said, and you might miss that new idea that could come out of that collaboration.

Wei-Zen Wei:              
Yes. That's why as soon as possible, the trainees where the student is postdoc is to go out and present what you do. We start with the lab meeting, every week you present. You get used to the idea of describing your thoughts, your results, and you enjoy getting the feedback. You enjoy refining your own thinking in the process and draw from others' strength and learn to interact and collaborate and have that synergy. And so, start on the lab meeting, then we take them to regional conferences and then to national conferences. They get used to interacting with a great mind, and so after a few years, it becomes their nature.

Annemarie Caño:         
Right. What you're describing too is some of what our associate provost, Monica Brockmeyer, has been talking about with student success, is this development of a growth mindset. That we don't expect students to know exactly how to do everything right now, right?

Wei-Zen Wei:              
Yes.

Annemarie Caño:         
But we give them opportunities and practice to develop those skills and to counter some of the ideas of, "Well, if I make a mistake in my presentation, that means I'm not cut out for this, or I'm stupid." Or those different internal thoughts, but to see it as, No, this is a process of how we develop our ideas and come up with even better ideas."

Wei-Zen Wei:              
Correct. Yes. I always say to myself and to others, "It's better to do and be wrong than not to do." You can make mistake, we all make mistakes and we grow from the mistakes. What you did wrong is something you'll remember the longest.

Annemarie Caño:         
Why?.

Wei-Zen Wei:              
Because you'll see the impact, but then you grow from it and you'll never do that again. The more senior students and trainees in the lab would tell the junior ones the same. Now, when they go to conference together, they would actually help each other rehearse and prepare questions. It becomes a nice team and they grow together.

Annemarie Caño:         
Yeah. That's wonderful.

Wei-Zen Wei:               
t is wonderful. It's family.

Annemarie Caño:        
Yes. Now, senior folks and professors and people in the Academy of Scholars, the impression of sometimes of junior scholars looking at people who are full professors or distinguished professors is, "Look at them, they don't make mistakes anymore." I was wondering if you could talk about how you deal with situations that may not go the way you wanted them to or a hypothesis that you tested and your hypothesis was not supported and how has a senior person you also approach that.

Wei-Zen Wei:              
You're almost always wrong.

Annemarie Caño:         
Okay. All right.

Wei-Zen Wei:               
We say in research is 95% wrong. If the other 5% happens and when you actually do something right in our line of work, which is cancer research, you actually figure out something that might help patients. The moment you discover that, you hand it over to the clinician and it's not your work anymore. So we're really dealing with continuous defeat.

Annemarie Caño:        
Okay.

Wei-Zen Wei:               
So we try to get used to it. It's not pleasant when really is a bad defeat-

Annemarie Caño:        
Sure.

Wei-Zen Wei:              
... but you just realize, this is the business. But even though it's often wrong, you learn something each step of the way and you're narrowing a little bit more each time and you hit one or two, and that's worth it.

Annemarie Caño:        
Yeah. A lot of what you're talking about in terms of you have to try, you have to test what you think is right, you may be wrong, that is something I think a lot of the listeners can relate to whether they're in science or not.

Wei-Zen Wei:              
Yes.

Annemarie Caño:        
And whether they're faculty in research or doing some creative work or an academic staff member who is advising students that this is a universal principle.

Wei-Zen Wei:              
Yes, I agree. I have been extremely lucky to have some amazing mentors. Some of them you know. I try to sum up from what they have taught me, not necessarily by words, but by example and by how they brought me through the years of training, is to just fear, not competition. Do not be intimidated, but embrace challenge because it can bring out what you don't even know you have. So you need the courage and confidence to embrace something that's difficult and you round up colleagues, friends, a team, you're always stronger when you have a team.

When you go through a tough times, do not expect sympathy. When you fail, you won't have very many friends at that moment, unfortunately. You just have to reach in, pull out your strengths and go through the tough moment. Usually, we do, surprisingly. We're usually stronger than we think, but I don't want people to overdo that, of course. One of the thing is, be very honest to yourself, is this right or is this wrong? If something actually come to fruition, always share. Don't say, "I did it."

Annemarie Caño:         
Okay.

Wei-Zen Wei:             
It's always your whole team.

Annemarie Caño:        
Share the credit.

Wei-Zen Wei:             
Share the credit. Very important.

Annemarie Caño:         
One thing that you mentioned in this is the idea of risk. I know that in speaking with people, faculty and staff and students, and I think this is not just at Wayne State, that sometimes people are afraid to go for that next thing because of the risk involved. Usually, it comes down to, "What if I fail? What if I embarrass myself? What are other people going to think?" I wonder what you have to say, especially about that other side of, "If I try this new thing or go for this promotion, other people are going to say things." What do you say about that?

Wei-Zen Wei:              
I think you have to know yourself because everybody is not the same and you don't respond the same and you don't want to push yourself to the point that you break. It is important to do that, but if you feel you have the strength, mental strength and physical strength, then who cares what are those think? In our case, we say you have to believe your data and build on your own data. The whole world may have published something that's opposite, but you have to believe what you produce because you do your best to do the honest work. If it says it's A and others say it's B, then others are wrong. It is your duty to prove that A is right.

Annemarie Caño:        
And to share the truth with others-

Wei-Zen Wei:             
Exactly.

Annemarie Caño:         
... regardless of the pushback.

Wei-Zen Wei:            
In science, we have seen that over and over that the majority, I mean, the majority is actually wrong. You have to believe what you generate, otherwise, where do you go by?

Annemarie Caño:         
Right. You said that you have to have those people around you who support you. Sometimes, it might be a small number of people, sometimes it might be a very large number of people. You also mentioned mentors as being important in terms of providing a guide.

Wei-Zen Wei:             
Yes.

Annemarie Caño:         
For those people who maybe they have some role models of people that they aspire to be like, but they don't really have a mentor, what kind of advice would you give to them to be able to cultivate or develop those mentoring relationships?

Wei-Zen Wei:           
I think you have to look and you have to reach out. I remember the song People, "People who loves people are the happiest people." Sometimes, scientists are shy. You have to fight that a little bit, but I remember when I was starting out in a new institute and I didn't know everybody. But in science, we encounter questions that we cannot solve ourselves. If it's organic chemistry that I'm not very strong, I used to just walk around the building and knock on the door of a expert on the subject. Surprisingly, they're usually very kind. They usually invite you in, they talk to you and they give you advice. You find yourself a mentor in any way possible. Mentors are important because you learn from their experience. They connect you to good people. So if you're in an environment where good mentors are provided, that's terrific. If not, reach out. Just knock on the doors.

Annemarie Caño:          
Again, it's stepping out of yourself.

Wei-Zen Wei:             
Yes.

Annemarie Caño:         
Take that risk. The worst that can happen is that there's a no, or maybe they ignore you, but that's not the worst thing in the world.

Wei-Zen Wei:           
Oh no, that's not at all the worst thing.

Annemarie Caño:       
Then you move on and you find [inaudible 00:17:39]. When I was an assistant professor, I made a cold email to a colleague in another country because I was going to be in that country visiting and I thought, "Oh, maybe I can get a tour of their lab or just see what they're doing." I didn't expect a response, but he was very gracious. He invited me for lunch and it ended up developing into a longterm research collaboration where we've had several papers since then. If I hadn't sent that one short email, none of that would've happened.

Wei-Zen Wei:               
That is so true, Annmarie. I have similar experience. I think academic people or scientists generally speaking are good and kind. If it's a honest request and honest question, you usually get a positive response. That is not to say that you won't have encounters with some less pleasant people. I also started a collaboration years back because there is a group in Italy who are doing similar things. I was going to go to Italy, same thing. I wrote and I said, "Could I stop by just say hello?" I went, I gave a talk, they invited me to give a talk and we started a 20-year collaboration.

Annemarie Caño:        
Yeah.

Wei-Zen Wei:               
Yes. Take chance.

Annemarie Caño:        
Yeah, there's really nothing to lose with some of those very small outreaches that could have a very large impact.

Wei-Zen Wei:               
Yes. We often reagents or information from our colleague that we don't already know. I used to say, "First, you send email, then you call, then you email again. If all three still fail, then maybe they don't want to respond."

Annemarie Caño:        
Right. But the lesson there too is, be persistent.

Wei-Zen Wei:               
Yes.

Annemarie Caño:        
You take the initial risk, but then you persist and try a few times. Don't give up so easily. Right?

Wei-Zen Wei:               
Yeah. I think that's a general truth no matter which line of business you're in. Just persist.

Annemarie Caño:        
Yeah.

Wei-Zen Wei:               
Yes.

Annemarie Caño:        
What does it mean to empower someone to lead?

Wei-Zen Wei:               
Well, this is a question you would like to ask.

Annemarie Caño:        
Yes it is.

Wei-Zen Wei:               
I think in different settings it means different things, but I think if you would like to develop a leader, you start from small and just have them constantly in a position of having to make decisions.

Annemarie Caño:        
Decision making.

Wei-Zen Wei:               
Decision making and be able to communicate their thoughts in a collegial way and able to bring people on board to march together. It's highly rewarding at times to see how it turns out. If we get outside the [inaudible 00:20:47] a little bit, I was Tanzania for three months in a middle school. They have no electricity in the school and they have classes on chemistry and biology, but they have never seen a lab. I was able to round up a little resource and help them buy a few pieces of equipment and encouraged a biology and chemistry teacher to take the lead.

I could not believe the transformation. They were given the environment now that they have some resources to work with and they found their passion of teaching. They voluntarily worked double time, they round up the students and there was just great excitement in the school about learning science. So I think you provide the environment, you provide a little bit of resources and you give them encouragement and you entrust them with the duty. They usually fly on their own. Don't make people fly, encourage them to fly on their own.

Annemarie Caño:        
Yeah. It sounds like in that situation and a feeling with your postdocs and students and other trainees, then empowering to lead means giving people the agency to make those decisions that are not micromanaged.

Wei-Zen Wei:               
Yes.

Annemarie Caño:        
They learn to fail and pick themselves back up again. They learn from that to improve in the future.

Wei-Zen Wei:               
Yes. I don't know whether everybody's lab is like that, I just find in my lab after a year or two people become very bossy. [.

Annemarie Caño:        
What does that mean?

Wei-Zen Wei:               
They make decisions and they don't want my interference.

Annemarie Caño:        
Ah, okay.

Wei-Zen Wei:               
They are very strong-minded and they have to do things their way because they have a certain vision that they want to carry up. So I say, "You are the one with the hands-on the work, so you can make that decision. Of course, if it doesn't work it's also yours to carry."

Annemarie Caño:        
Right. But the fact that people feel, when people feel empowered and then they are free to express their opinions about what they think is the right next step or the vision, I think is a sign that they are comfortable in that environment and have been empowered. Then, when people are feeling like they can't express their opinion or their vision because it's going to be slammed down or there's going to be other negative consequences from the team or from superiors, then that person does not feel empowered. And that may be a time for someone to look for either another opportunity or environment that would allow them.

Wei-Zen Wei:               
Yes, I think so. I think everybody has different personality and it's not always going to be a good match. If you find it's not a good match and you don't find the synergy, it may be best to change as soon as possible. Otherwise, just the pain continues. It's not productive.

Annemarie Caño:        
Yeah. Yeah. Any other advice you'd like to share with listeners?

Wei-Zen Wei:               
Today, we are talking about leadership.

Annemarie Caño:        
Yes.

Wei-Zen Wei:               
I'm a scientist, so it's about scientific leadership.

Annemarie Caño:        
Okay.

Wei-Zen Wei:               
I think scientific leadership is not given, it's not something you train to do. I don't think we ever take a course on how to be a leader in science. It is something that comes by necessity because you have to take charge of your project and truly lead it to get anywhere. And by excelling in your science and by opening up yourself, accepting people, respecting people, and delight in seeing something coming out from others. I think that's natural path to a leadership.

Annemarie Caño:        
Okay, thank you.

Wei-Zen Wei:               
And you enjoy doing that.

Annemarie Caño:        
Any books or resources that you would like to recommend to listeners?

Wei-Zen Wei:               
I don't think I have a particular book to recommend, I have learned from my mentors. I think we have actually covered most of the important points, that is just trust yourself and fight for your goal. Do not be discouraged easily.

Annemarie Caño:        
Okay.

Wei-Zen Wei:               
Perseverance.

Annemarie Caño:        
Thank you.

Wei-Zen Wei:               
Thank you.

Annemarie Caño:        
Well, thanks so much for sharing your insights, Wei-Zen.

Wei-Zen Wei:               
It's a pleasure, Annmarie, to talk to you.

Annemarie Caño:        
Okay. Where can our listeners find you online?

Wei-Zen Wei:               
Well, if they typed my name on Google, they might find a thing or two.

Annemarie Caño:        
Okay.

Wei-Zen Wei:               
But, don't believe everything you see.

Annemarie Caño:        
Okay.

Wei-Zen Wei:               
Some fake news.

Annemarie Caño:        
Okay. Thank you. We're glad to have you listening to EmpowerED to Lead. To learn more about our podcast, follow us on Twitter at WSU. FAC success.