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Women Scientist Profiles

Wei Yang, Ph.D.

Wei Yang, Ph.D.

Wei Yang, Ph.D., is an NIH Distinguished Investigator at the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases where she serves as Chief of the Mechanism of DNA Repair, Replication, and Recombination Section, Laboratory of Molecular Biology. She studies the three-dimensional structure of proteins and how they work. Her research group focuses on the proteins that work with DNA. These proteins copy DNA, repair it when it is damaged, and move or copy and paste DNA. Dr. Yangs research helps explain how mutations in these proteins interfere with their work and endanger the stability of the genome. This kind of basic research can help explain how some cancers work and identify targets for drugs.

Dr. Yang received her Ph.D. in Biochemistry and Molecular Biophysics at Columbia University. She completed postdoctoral fellowships at Columbia University and Yale University before joining the NIH in 1995. She was tenured in 2000. In 2011, she was awarded the Dorothy Crowfoot Hodgkin Award from the Protein Society for exceptional contributions in protein science. Dr. Yang is a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and a member of both the National Academy of Sciences and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

How has mentoring (as a mentor or mentee) shaped your career?

Being mentored by the right people really played a key role in my career. I think the most important thing for me was having mentors who approach science with the highest reverence possible. They take science as the highest calling in life and treat it with such respect. We do our best to understand biological phenomena at the molecular level. My graduate advisor, Dr. Wayne Hendrickson of Columbia University, was extremely nurturing, and he treated everyone equally. Your gender, ethnic origin, or training background didnt matter. He gave everyone an independent project and a fair chance to succeed, listening to us and offering us the best advice and insight that he had.

My postdoctoral training was carried out at Yale University under the supervision of Dr. Tom Steitz. He won a Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 2009. His career has been amazing. When he started in the 1970s, he proposed to study the central dogma the whole machinery for making proteins based on DNA. People literally laughed at him because, at the time, people studied structures of only single small proteins and not large protein complexes. But he succeeded at every step. He always chose the most direct ways to study the most interesting and important questions. I learned so much just watching him.

Tom also supported women scientists wholeheartedly. His wife, Dr. Joan Steitz, is also a world-class scientist who was elected to the National Academy of Sciences before he was. He never minded being known as Joans husband. Differences in hair length or voice pitch made no impression on Tom. All he saw was if someone had a good idea and did good work.

What do you enjoy about being a scientist?

I think it is true that, in developed countries such as the United States, more and more women get a fair chance to grow in their careers. But still, I think, for young women, having children and being a caregiver is one of the biggest challenges. Many institutions are providing more support to women and mothers. I know NIH is expanding its day care so more female postdocs have access to affordable child care.

Theres also the traditional expectation that men should be more successful than women, and women should shoulder more of the burden of family life than men. I know more and more female scientists, however, whose husbands are willing to put their own careers on the slow burner and take some time off. But its still not nearly as many as women who put their careers on hold for their husbands.

How do you manage work/life integration? 

I spent a lot of time in the lab most of my waking hours so I met people in the lab. My husband is a scientist, too. He never had second thoughts about me pursuing my career full throttle. He recently moved to the University of Texas at Austin. At the beginning, he was expecting me to move with him, and I agreed, but then I decided, its far better for my career if I stay at NIH, and he supported me. Every other weekend, we visit one another.

With colleagues and friends, I do a lot of hiking on the weekends. I listen to books on CD while I drive or exercise. I like to visit museums and go to concerts. I have trainees in my group, and I always encourage them to spend time away from the bench. Overworking is not good for productive thinking. Your brain needs diverse stimuli, and you need to live a balanced life. You never know when that key idea will strike, and it often seems to occur at unexpected times.

If you werent a scientist, what other job would you have?

I want to be a chef! It has so many parallels to being a biochemist. I love food, and I like experimenting and the result is a pleasure to consume!

What advice do you have for young female scientists?

If they really do like research, they should pursue it. And theres no age limit on ones capacity for scientific research. Recently I heard a talk by the brilliant scientist Dr. Peter Walter. He presented some work that was done by a woman who was a graduate student years ago, then she had a family and took a few years off. He hired her back, and again she did extraordinary work. Now she can start her independent career after 40. One can go back to pursue research at 45 or even 50 because our life expectancy is more than 80 years. Theres another 20 plus years to do what we are interested in, even if we start at 45.

This page last updated: August 9, 2018

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