First up in our Be a Biochemist series is undergraduate Yannick Lee-yow, a Biochemistry (BCHM) and Molecular, Cellular, and Developmental Biology (MCDB) double major who had a round-about path into biochemistry. He found a home conducting independent research with MCDB’s Dr. Ding Xue for the past four years and is now graduating as a published first author to pursue a Ph.D. in genetics at Stanford University. Yannick was also recently awarded The Royal Chemical Society’s Certificate of Excellence and the Barry M. Goldwater Scholarship (the most prestigious scholarship for undergraduate students in the natural sciences, engineering, and mathematics) for his achievements in the sciences. We caught up with Yannick to learn more about his time here at CU and his promising career in research.
Yannick grew up nearby in the small town of Niwot, Colorado with a big love for music. He started taking piano lessons as a child and by his teenage years he was playing local gigs in his hometown, “I had played with a few of the faculty at CU and I thought that it might be fun to do a jazz major.” Soon he was admitted into CU Boulder’s Jazz Studies Program, marking the start of his scholastic career as a musician. However, as Yannick started to explore the University’s broader campus he had a major change of heart.
Curious to learn more about what was happening on campus, Yannick decided to tour a lab with a friend: “I actually happened to really like the lab. Being a part of something new that no one else knew at the time and being at that leading edge of research was really appealing to me. After the experience, I switched my major to MCDB.” It wasn’t long after that he added a Biochemistry major and a Chemistry minor. Because BCHM offers significant course overlap with other natural sciences like MCDB, EBIO, and CHEM, undergrads can more readily complete a double major.
Although the jazz gigs didn’t pan out, the research did, and Yannick soon found his humanities courses more challenging than his lab work. Over the next three years, he would characterize the electroconductivity of 3-D printed metals at microwave frequency, study neurocognition and problem-solving strategies in CU science students, and join Dr. Xue’s lab his freshman year (the lab he toured with a friend). Under Dr. Xue’s mentorship, Yannick worked on several projects focusing on mitochondrial disease, cell death, and radiobiology using C. elegans, a nematode often used as a model organism.
Exploring New Frontiers
As part of the Xue Lab, Yannick collaborated to design a mutagenic suppression experiment to characterize the mitochondrial unfolded protein response (UPRmt). He also learned how to apply his experience with bioinformatic programs to explore the structure and function of an enzyme involved in apoptotic cells. Yannick’s honor’s thesis investigated the radiation-induced bystander effect, where irradiated cells cause wild-type neighbors to behave abnormally through intercellular signaling. He eventually chose to use C. elegans as a model for investigating side effects associated with radiotherapy for his honors thesis, and we’ll let you read his elevator pitch:
I designed and fabricated an apparatus for locally irradiating C. elegans with X-rays. This was done using 3D printing and computer-aided design modeling techniques. By pairing this new instrument with classical molecular, genetic, and biochemical techniques, I was able to develop a methodology for exploring radiotherapeutic side effects, as well as identify a molecular mediator of the radiation-induced bystander effect as a major causal agent of radiotherapeutic side effects.
This sort of research is invaluable to fighting cancer and DNA-damaging disease, and highly sought-after by elite graduate programs. Additionally, young scientists take note—the ability to distill research into such a succinct message is crucial to marketing one’s work.
Another life, and Yannick says he would’ve followed the herd to avoid the headache, especially when fulfilling those humanities requirements early on: “ I would recommend taking [humanities courses] as early as possible so it’s not so overwhelming towards the end of college.” He also advises undergrads to stay curious and explore their interests, particularly in research, “Try and join a research lab as early as possible. They certainly seem intimidating at first, but they’re a really good experience and everyone’s very humble. Usually, the people that you find in those labs have the same passion that a biochemistry student looking for a lab would have.” Although Yannick plans to pursue a career in research academia, he’s still unsure about what his graduate work will focus on. Preliminary ideas include studying the regulatory world of non-coding sequences such as lincRNAs; one thing he does know for sure is that he will let his curiosity take the driver’s seat.