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CSB Spotlight: Yang Lab

Posted by on Thursday, July 6, 2023 in News.

John Yang, assistant professor of chemistry, joined the Vanderbilt University in the fall of 2020. He forged his path to Vanderbilt via Nankai University in China, UCLA and MIT with research focusing on theoretical and computational chemistry, chemical biology, physical organic chemistry and enzyme catalysis. John joined the CSB not long after arriving at Vanderbilt, and he didn’t let the pandemic keep him from building a dynamic and diverse lab that is developing “Alexa” for mutants. Read more about his journey in our spotlight of the Yang Lab.

What projects does your lab currently work on? My lab focuses on developing a computational ecosystem, Mutexa, to change the way researchers engineer functional proteins for synthetic and pharmaceutical uses. Mutexa is short for “Alexa for mutants.” We believe how people engineer proteins in the future should be similar to the way we use Amazon Alexa in these days – if researchers intend to obtain the sequences of protein variants with desired functions, they just need to ask for help from a computational machine.

What are the primary tools and techniques you use to answer these questions? Mutexa integrates high-throughput computation, bioinformatics, quantum chemistry, multiscale simulation and data-driven modeling. We also leverage experimental molecular biology strategies to validate computational predictions.

What was your path to this position? What is your favorite part of being a PI? I have always been driven to understand fundamental insights behind complex chemical phenomena and seek ways to predict and design new chemical systems. I was a chemistry undergraduate student at Nankai University in China before I joined the Department of Chemistry at UCLA. My PhD thesis emphasized theoretical and computational organic chemistry. After graduation, I was a postdoc in the Department of Chemical Engineering at MIT for two years before I joined Vanderbilt as a PI in the fall of 2020. When I was a student, I always dreamed of having my own lab, and now that dream has come true.

For me, the most amazing part of being a PI is leading a team of talented and motivated scholars to achieve something significant that each one of us alone could not possibly achieve.

What are some fun lab activities you like to do? Although it’s been really difficult to hold fun lab activities during the pandemic, we attempted to play board games together. We have played Blokus, Coup and Mahjong together. It was really fun, and we would enjoy doing more of that when everything gets back to normal!

What do you think is the key to running a successful group? Honestly, I am still in the stage of learning how to run a successful group. From what I have learned from more experienced PIs, creating a healthy and welcoming dynamic in the lab is truly critical. As a team leader, I try to listen and learn from my students before letting my own bias and ego get in the way. But as I said, I am still in the beginning of my independent career journey – there will be more for me to explore and discover!

Do you have any other info, thoughts or pearls of wisdom to share? I really want to thank all my students and postdocs who joined my lab amid the pandemic – they are way more capable of solving scientific puzzles than I am yet still put so much trust in me. I feel so lucky and proud to work with them!


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