As West Virginia University Health Sciences continues to improve the health of West Virginians through education, research, service and patient care, Ming Lei is just beginning to envision the possibilities by expanding graduate education and research efforts.
“I think we can strive to meet West Virginians’ needs and also serve as an example for others with similar challenges,” Lei said. “I find the land-grant mission of WVU is really powerful and highlights our purpose and brings everybody in the state together to serve our people and educate the state's next generation.”
Lei, who joined Health Sciences in August 2023, serves as senior associate vice president for research and graduate education and vice dean of research for the School of Medicine as well as professor in the Department of Microbiology, Immunology and Cell Biology.
Building a career
In his early life, Lei had limited exposure to STEM fields, and he first developed an interest in scientific research while in college.
“I was a late starter in science,” Lei explained. “Growing up in a household with both parents working in humanities fields, I was only swept into science after high school by the societal call to modernize the Chinese society through science and technology. Even in college, I kind of fumbled through the first two years. Luckily, I took genetics in my junior year and remain fascinated by it to this day.”
With his new-found interest, Lei delved into a senior year thesis project on genetic engineering, a line of research he continued in graduate school at the Chinese Academy of Sciences.
“I was lucky as a graduate student; I was among the first in the world to succeed in regenerating rice plants from cells with cell walls removed. At the time, that was essential to introduce exogenous DNA into the regenerated plants for genetic engineering. That success and the encouragements I received helped me keep on the pursuit of a research career. So, I often say to students, even if you're a late starter, you can still enjoy a career in science.”
After receiving a master’s degree, Lei moved to the United States and completed the doctoral program in molecular biology at Cornell University and began an academic career at the Medical College of Wisconsin studying how DNA replicates precisely in normal cells but fails to do so in cancer cells.
A later opportunity led Lei to the National Science Foundation where he managed research grant portfolios in genetics, genomics and molecular biology while maintaining his research lab in Wisconsin.
In 2008, Lei began working with the National Cancer Institute (NCI) at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) where he oversaw its training and education programs that support graduate students, postdoctoral fellows, clinical fellows and early-stage faculty members. He spent 10 years at the NCI before his appointment as director of the Division for Research Capacity Building at the National Institute of General Medical Sciences (NIGMS).
“The core of that job was to lead the Institutional Development Award, known as the IDeA program, which was mandated by Congress to support biomedical research and research capacity building activities in 24 mostly rural states, including West Virginia,” Lei explained.
“It was during my tenure at NIGMS when I started working with the Health Sciences Center at WVU, home of IDeA programs that support several Centers of Biomedical Research Excellence (CoBRE) and the IDeA Clinical and Translational Research Network (IDeA-CTR) led by the Clinical and Translational Science Institute (CTSI). The CoBREs have been instrumental in developing robust and world-class research in neuroscience, cancer and vision science at WVU. The IDeA-CTR award has helped the WVCTSI to build a state-wide network of academic medical centers, community hospitals and rural clinics that work together to address West Virginians’ health challenges now, and to train next-generation clinical researchers to help keep West Virginians healthy in the future.”
Lei’s contributions to the IDeA program have been widely recognized across the country.
While working at the NIH in 2020 when the COVID-19 pandemic began, Lei and his colleagues quickly recognized that medically underserved populations like those in rural communities were affected by the pandemic at higher rates and severities.
As Congress provided the NIH with funding for COVID-19 response, Lei and his team worked on mobilizing and supporting the research community to develop new technology and interventions to protect underserved populations. The team first worked to ensure testing was available to underserved populations and then went on to combat vaccine hesitancy.
“That was the largest single initiative I had led at NIH. The $1.5 billion funding mandated by Congress was put in three categories – one was technology development, another was scaling up of the new technology and the third was to apply the new methods and innovations to the heaviest hit populations. The overall initiative was called Rapid Acceleration of Diagnosis (RADx). The part I helped lead was RADx-UP, for RADx-underserved populations. We effectively delivered the funds to researchers nationwide to produce interventions that could really make a difference.
“During the pandemic, I worked very closely with WVU. The NIH helped strengthen West Virginia’s statewide partnership between government agencies, WVU and a broad spectrum of stakeholders. The National Guard did an exceptional job in helping the state’s population beat the challenges brought by the public health crisis.”
After 15 years at the NIH, Lei began thinking about a return to higher education.
“I am always drawn to doing something that has a more direct impact in helping people. I had developed a pretty solid skillset and had built large, collaborative research programs, so I felt I had something to bring back to an academic institution.”
After a short search, Lei learned about the position at WVU. Having worked with WVU and Dr. Clay Marsh, chancellor and vice dean for WVU Health Sciences, on past initiatives in previous roles, Lei knew it was a perfect fit.
“I knew the need in West Virginia and found that the Health Sciences Center is well-structured and led by visionary leaders,” Lei said. “WVU Medicine also has a healthcare system that covers the entire state with great outreach mechanisms to our large number of rural patients. I thought those are fundamentals that can really place us, WVU and West Virginia, to do something not only to address the population's need but also become a national model in addressing rural health's challenges.
“Clay always talks about developing real solutions for real people with real results. It really resonated with me as I was looking for a career move with a greater purpose.”
Looking toward the future
Now, after a semester into his new role at WVU, Lei is looking toward the future and finding ways to expand research and graduate education efforts on the Health Sciences Campus.
To improve health outcomes through research, Lei hopes to contribute to increasing the number of clinical trials conducted in the state while also increasing the rates of rural population participation in the trials.
“The rural population faces two major challenges,” Lei explains. “One is that there are not enough clinical trials being supported or conducted in rural states. The other is the rates of participation by rural patients in clinical trials are low. Both contribute to the urban-rural disparity because if you don't have enough rural patients participate in trials, then the trial outcome is inherently biased.”
The funding of a new clinical trials resource center by the IDeA program at WVU through the West Virginia Clinical and Translational Science Institute will help address both challenges.
“Part of the unique feature of a land-grant institution is that it has an extension service with a presence in every county,” he said. “Because I was interested in rural health, I’ve been thinking about how to leverage the extension service network to improve health.
“Extension agents enjoy the strongest trust with local residents. And with clinical trials, the biggest obstacle is trust. So, we started a collaboration with WVU Extension and WVU Cancer Institute to leverage this unique land-grant institution infrastructure.”
To expand graduate education efforts, Lei will pursue projects and initiatives that give students the best training experience so they can be competitive in pursuing research careers. He is also interested in investing in further undergraduate research opportunities.
“I'm really passionate about graduate education, which develops our next generation of research workforce,” Lei said. “I want to make a serious effort to recruit the best and the brightest students of West Virginia to come to WVU and benefit from what WVU can offer. I really view that investing in West Virginia’s students is an oath to further strengthen our graduate program.”
Through these efforts, Lei is hopeful that WVU and Health Sciences can expand upon its already established initiatives to continue serving the residents of West Virginia while training the next generation of healthcare professionals.
“Our graduate education mission is perfectly aligned with our land-grant institution mission in educating the best and brightest West Virginians to contribute to the state's future. Building the state would largely depend on the efforts of people who are from the state. We have to focus on our state and focus on the state's students.
“I feel really fortunate to be here. I love Morgantown, and I love what I'm doing. We are all making a serious effort to position our institution for the future to address all the challenges and thrive. I'm very optimistic for what we can accomplish.”
CONTACT: Jessica Wilmoth
Senior Communications Specialist
University Relations – Health Sciences