Xiaoyong Yang, Ph.D., remembers reading the article in Cell, one of the most prestigious peer-reviewed scientific journals. The 1997 article reported discoveries about gene expression.
Yang — then a doctoral student at the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB) — found it inspirational, and the article quickly provoked his own questions about gene expression. The first author on that Cell article was named Laszlo Nagy, M.D., Ph.D. Over time, Yang and Nagy would follow similar academic paths and become acquainted through a mutual mentor.
Yang rose through the ranks and now is a professor of Comparative Medicine and of Cellular & Molecular Physiology at Yale University School of Medicine. Recently, he has been working on sabbatical in Nagy’s lab as part of the growing research enterprise at Johns Hopkins All Children’s Hospital in St. Petersburg, Florida.
“Science is like a family,” Nagy says. “It is important to have interesting people come here and experience our program. Time is valuable, and the fact that he has chosen to spend his time with us validates our growth.”
An Early Interest
Originally from China, Yang caught the science bug early. His father was an electrical engineer who worked on semiconductors. His mother was a pediatrician.
In high school, Yang was good in math and thought he would follow his father’s footsteps and study physics. But as Yang’s interests developed, he saw more questions to answer — more room to make an impact — in biology.
After studying at Nankai University and Peking University in China, Yang had opportunities to pursue a doctorate in the United States. He landed at UAB.
The biggest adjustment wasn’t going from megacities such as Tianjin and Beijing in China to a much smaller Birmingham, but adapting to the subtleties of how Americans use English in more nuanced ways.
The program he encountered at UAB was rigorous.
“I learned critical thinking, and how to ask big questions,” Yang says.
He did his research thesis on gene expression, which is how a gene is activated to use its encoded information to make RNA, which may then make proteins or serve other functions.
“I got in at the right time,” Yang says. “There was a lot of progress being made with regard to how a gene is turned on and it motivated me to ask the question of how a gene is turned off.”
Making a Connection
Nagy is a bit more experienced than Yang.
When he wrote the article for Cell that inspired Yang, Nagy worked at the Salk Institute in La Jolla, California, with Ronald Evans, Ph.D., director of Salk's Gene Expression Laboratory. The work by Nagy and others in Evans’ lab inspired Yang to pursue working there.
Nagy had moved on before Yang started, but their shared ties to Evans brought them together at lab reunions, conferences and events for Evans’ milestone birthdays. Their work didn’t always overlap, but they had a shared interest in the science.
Rejuvenation and Inspiration
When All Children’s became the only hospital outside the Baltimore-Washington, D.C., area to join the Johns Hopkins Health System in 2011, there was a commitment to expanding the clinical and translational research enterprise.
In 2018, that effort expanded to include basic science and Nagy and other colleagues joined Johns Hopkins All Children’s, setting up new labs and the Institute for Fundamental Biomedical Research where Nagy is co-director. The organization has continued to add grant-funded scientists and a growing number of postdoctoral students.
Yang has been at Yale for nearly 14 years. The university encourages faculty to take periodic sabbaticals to recharge and learn from other programs. Yang reached out to Nagy about spending four months working with his lab and was thrilled with the efficiency of approving his sabbatical.
While most research operations are decades old, Yang sees advantages in the new equipment and fresh approach in the Johns Hopkins All Children’s Research and Education Building.
“It’s very cool to have a new building and a new research institute,” he says. “It’s great to have young principal investigators who are all poised to pursue cutting-edge research.”
Yang has spent time with Nagy and Tim Osborne, Ph.D., Johns Hopkins All Children’s associate dean for Basic Research. He has presented to groups about his research and encouraged questions. He may be most enthusiastic about the chance to be inspired by a new generation of investigators. He has met most faculty members in this research institute and all the investigators in Nagy’s lab. He believes he can give back to them as they brainstorm together, sharing his experience with writing grant proposals, managing teams and preparing for the future. He believes long-term connections and collaborations will result after he finishes the sabbatical in October.
“St. Pete is a hidden gem in the academic landscape. It will be exciting to see how the future unfolds,” he says.
The experience is invaluable for the up-and-coming investigators, Nagy says.
“This is a person they know who works at Yale,” he says. “The fact that someone of his stature, who could have gone anywhere chose to spend time with us is validation this is a good place to be.”