Pursuing Her Passions

Living Her Dream: Hui Yang's Journey from China to Einstein

When Hui Yang arrived in the United States from China in 2008, she had a limited knowledge of English and the $600 her father had given her for an emergency. Just eight years later, Ms. Yang is a medical student at Einstein and proud recipient of a prestigious medical research fellowship from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI).

Medical student Hui Yang
Medical student Hui Yang
“Hui is one of the most amazingly talented students I’ve ever met,” observed Dr. William Jacobs, professor of microbiology & immunology and of genetics, and an HHMI investigator at Einstein. “She’s going to be a superstar.”

In overcoming the obstacles along her path, Ms. Yang learned to speak English, found work as a math tutor and achieved academic success in a way she couldn’t overseas.

“In China, attending college is often the ultimate educational goal,” she explained. “But in the U.S., particularly in medical school, there is encouragement to become a lifelong learner. This approach appeals to me because it permits me to pursue my passions in medicine and science.”

Inspiring Mentors

Ms. Yang has truly followed her passion for scientific research. In college, after first doing research on solid-state nuclear magnetic resonance, she then pursued projects in ophthalmology and in neuroscience. She completed the latter work in the lab of Dr. M. Valaria Canto-Soler at Johns Hopkins Wilmer Eye Institute.

“Dr. Canto-Soler showed me how an immigrant can build a successful research career in the U.S.,” she said. “My interest in the intersection of neuroscience and ophthalmology originated from my work in her lab.”

Following graduation from Johns Hopkins, Ms. Yang had her first encounter with Dr. Jacobs, working under his supervision on a study of tuberculosis (TB) in South Africa that summer.

“What struck me was her fearlessness in expressing her thoughts,” recalled Dr. Jacobs. “I had never met someone that young so uninhibited when discussing science. It’s an important quality in an effective scientist.”

“Dr. Jacobs has been my most pivotal mentor,” said Ms. Yang. “His expectations for me transformed me from someone who does good bench work into someone who has sound, research logic.”

She also credits working in South Africa with reaffirming her decision to pursue a research career. “Knowing my research could potentially benefit the people I walked past on the street everyday gave me great motivation,” she said.

Finding Acceptance and Direction

Ms. Yang in Baltimore, where she attended Johns Hopkins as an undergrad
Ms. Yang in Baltimore, where she attended Johns Hopkins as an undergrad
Despite this desire, her academic success and strong MCAT scores, Ms. Yang’s immigrant status hindered her acceptance into M.D./Ph.D. programs, which receive federal funding. Because the medical school can accept international students, Einstein welcomed the promising future physician-scientist into its M.D. program while allowing her to further her research goals.

“Einstein’s acceptance motivates me to aim for greater accomplishment and live up to the school's trust in me,” she said.

She continued her work with Dr. Jacobs before entering Einstein as a medical student, and had the opportunity to be co-author of a paper that followed up on one of his major discoveries. Almost 30 years ago, Dr. Jacobs’ lab first identified a way to introduce foreign DNA into Mycobacterium smegmatis?an important model organism used in TB research.

While the ability to genetically engineer M. smegmatis revolutionized the field of TB research, the Jacobs team still wanted to learn more about the molecular basis for their accomplishment. Working with Dr. Paras Jain, a senior research specialist in the Jacobs lab, Ms. Yang helped determine that it was a mutation in a protein known as structure maintenance of chromosome protein, or SMC protein, that allowed the process to occur. The discovery has important implications for the Jacobs team’s future development of molecular genetic tools and their study of bacterial metabolism and pathogenesis.

HHMI Recognition

Augmenting her already impressive curriculum vitae, Ms. Yang served as an HHMI 2015 Summer Research Fellow during the break between first and second years. And this June, she returned her research focus to neuroscience when she began a one-year HHMI Medical Research Fellows Program, working in the lab of Dr. Scott Sternson, at HHMI’s Janelia Research Campus in Virginia.

In her spare time, Ms. Yang exercises her passion for working out
In her spare time, Ms. Yang exercises her passion for working out
“The fellowship is difficult to come by, but even rarer for a student in their second year of medical school,” said Dr. Stephen Baum, senior associate dean for students at Einstein. “Of course, I said yes when she asked permission to accept the position. She has so much to offer the field of research. She is such a remarkable person.”

The three lab heads at the HHMI Janelia campus who heard Ms. Yang describe her work with Dr. Jacobs seem to agree. Each offered to be her mentor.

Ms. Yang chose to join Dr. Sternson’s lab to conduct research on the neural control of feeding behavior. Specifically, she will help define types of neurons within the part of the midbrain known as ventrolateral periaqueductal grey (vlPAG)—since neuronal types in the vlPAG are still not fully elucidated. She also will study the neural circuits formed by neurons.

“Since college I’ve been interested in neuroscience. My excitement about it was further reinforced when I shadowed Dr. Ilana Friedman and Dr. Cheng Zhang in Montefiore’s ophthalmology department.”

“Hui is going to have access to some of the best minds and the best resources in the world.” Dr. Jacobs exclaimed. “It’s an unbelievable opportunity.”

Ms. Yang understands the opportunities before her and what they mean for her future.

“I’m grateful to receive this honor and to begin my research. It’s my hope to stay in America and set up my own lab someday,” she said. “I believe in the pursuit of the highest level of human inquisitiveness and intellectuality. It propels me to become a good physician scientist.”

Posted on: Wednesday, July 6, 2016