NIAMS Scientists Ė Diverse Backgrounds, Shared Goals

September 25, 2013 (historical)

On the Road to Becoming a Physician Scientist

Photo of Dr. Eva Yang
Eva Yang

Eva Yang recently completed a three-year, post-baccalaureate Intramural Research Training Award (IRTA) internship in the NIAMS Pediatric Translational Research Branch (PTRB) under the mentorship of Drs. Gerlinde Layh-Schmitt and Robert Colbert. She received her B.S. degree in biomedical engineering from the University of Virginia. Ms. Yang also received training at Johns Hopkins, Vanderbilt, and Brown Universities. She recently began her M.D./Ph.D. training through the Medical Scientist Training Program at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York. She hopes to integrate her interests in developmental biology and regenerative medicine as she pursues her career as a physician scientist.

Where are you from?

I was born in South Korea, the eldest of a family of ten. My father moved to the U.S. to continue his career as a religious worker. When I was ten years old, some of my siblings and I joined him. Years later, we were joined by our mother and younger siblings. My family moved quite often due to the nature of my fatherís work, but Iíve spent most of my life along the East Coast.

What motivated you to come to the NIAMS?

While at the University of Virginia, I heard great things about the IRTA program at the NIH from various students and mentors. I chose to apply to the NIAMS based on my interest in skeletal development and related diseases. I was hoping to gain more research experience before continuing my studies, and the PTRB offered an opportunity to become more familiar with various lab techniques and model systems. The time I spent at the PTRB was definitely invaluable in solidifying my interests in research.

Where else have you worked?

In college, I worked as a research assistant or summer research intern at different institutions. I first stepped into a lab as a technician washing dishes and cleaning refrigerators. I was actually very excited to be inside a lab no matter what I was doing. I then moved on to working with various models (fruit flies, patient rats, samples) and projects ranging from making 3-dimensional nanofibrous matrices for tissue regeneration to evaluating potential mechanisms of abnormal bone growth. Although the specifics of each project may have seemed unrelated, the ultimate goal of each was to understand or promote tissue formation.

What or who influenced you to pursue a career in science?

I had great high school teachers and enjoyed my classes in and out of the sciences. I began to appreciate science as I learned more about potential real-life applications. My parents encouraged me to pursue a career that would allow me to create tangible solutions and quantifiable results of personal value. I felt that a career in science, coupled with training in medicine, would provide just that.

What led you to become involved in scientific research and academia? Was there a defining moment that led you to a career in science?

In high school, I saw a medical documentary on regenerative medicine that highlighted the need for continued research in this area. The documentary was on the facial reconstruction of a domestic violence victim, and the story stirred an interest I have maintained to this day. Soon after, I decided that I wanted to learn more about the application of stem cells for tissue regeneration. The experiences gained while working in different labs reinforced my interest in biomedical research.

What is the focus of your research?

I am interested in regenerative medicine and have studied biomaterials and stem cells that could promote tissue formation. My undergraduate thesis group project focused on creating a skin substitute prototype. We used a combination of synthetic and natural polymers that were biodegradable, nontoxic, and antimicrobial. They mimicked the extracellular matrix and could additionally serve as a binding surface for cells to travel throughout during the regeneration process. Although the aim of the project was to create an alternative for treating severe ulcers or burns, the individual components of the prototype could be modified to promote regeneration of a variety of tissues.

At the NIAMS, I focused on stem cell or precursor cell differentiation to better understand the bone-related symptoms of ankylosing spondylitis, a form of progressive spinal arthritis due to chronic inflammation. As an undergraduate, my focus was on creating tissue without delving too deeply into the ultimate cause of the medical condition. What I found interesting about the NIAMS project was that I studied potential mechanisms of tissue formation and ways to reverse or prevent abnormal growth.

What is your anticipated area of expertise?

I would like to learn more about molecular regulations of tissue development with the ultimate goal of manipulating tissue differentiation and regeneration. After graduating from the M.D./ Ph.D. program and completing subsequent training in medicine and research (residency and postdoctoral fellowship), I hope to join an academic institution and continue my research while practicing medicine.

What do you enjoy about your career?

Working in research brings variety and even pleasant surprises that make walking into the lab every day exciting. Most of all, I appreciate the fact that my work to understand a problem or create a solution can have a positive consequence. Although Iím not sure what the focus of my research will be, I very much look forward to developing a new product and actually seeing the product in action in the clinical setting someday.

What activities do you enjoy outside of work?

I took representational oil painting classes soon after beginning my work at the NIH, and I hope to resume my studies in New York. I am particularly fond of 19th and 20th century painters. I have not yet participated in exhibitions outside of classes, but I do hope to in the future.

Can you offer any advice for people who wish to pursue a career in science?

Find mentors and institutions that are a good fit for you as an individual. Also, pursue projects you truly find interesting, no matter the risk or potential for reward. As with any career, be persistent, because weeks or even months of negative data can hurt your soul. Your motivation and inspiration need to be well-grounded. One of my motivating factors is my faith in science and how important changes can arise from biomedical research.

Why is it important for people from diverse backgrounds to participate in research both as investigators and as patients?

Collaboration among patients, researchers, and physicians with diverse points of view is critical not only for efficient research, but also for design and implementation of lasting solutions. I feel that even people who are not directly associated with a medical condition have much to contribute to the advancement of science and medicine. No matter what the goal, integration of different cultures, fields, and professions can offer new insight and alternatives.