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NIH Record - National Institutes of Health

The Scientist Behind the Discovery

Dr. Li Yang

Dr. Li Yang

It’s never too late to follow one’s aspirations, and Yang’s journey to becoming an NCI senior investigator embodies that mantra.

Yang was born and raised in Sichuan province in China. As a child, she dreamed about making scientific discoveries. “When I was 12 years old, my father gave me a book about Madame Curie’s discovery of radium and I always dreamed of being just like her.”

After earning her undergraduate and master’s degrees in China, she emigrated to Raleigh, N.C. For years, she worked as a research technician at North Carolina State University, Duke and later Vanderbilt, where she focused on raising her two young children. 

“Many women get their careers established first. I had my babies first,” Yang said. 

While she prioritized motherhood, at the same time, she was becoming increasingly bored. Her husband, a professor at Vanderbilt, suggested she go back to school to pursue her doctorate.

“My husband said, ‘I know you want intellectual challenges and need to satisfy your curiosity. I know your mind is wanting more,’” said Yang. She decided to survey a class at Vanderbilt. 

“When I sat in on a class, I realized how much I loved it,” she said. “I loved all of the new intellectual challenges—even taking the tests.” She soon enrolled in the Ph.D. program in cancer biology.

Each day, Yang went to work or class and came home to care for her kids, who were 2 and 9 when she started her graduate studies. “I would get up around 1 or 2 in the morning to finish school coursework until about 4 or 5 a.m.,” she said. After a couple hours of sleep, she would resume her daily activities.

“I was exhausted. But it was my time, and I was using it to do something I love,” she said. “As women, we are good at adapting. The experience we have as mothers, as a family, as major contributors, we have ways to deal with stress and adapt to many different situations.”

In graduate school, Yang studied the role of the COX-2 pathway in regulation, immune response and tumor progression and how host myeloid cells contribute to tumor blood vessel formation. During her studies, she relished the opportunity to do a short stay in Japan, collaborating with a professor at Kyoto University on her dissertation project. “I learned so much about how people do science there and I enjoyed learning about Japanese culture,” she said.

After receiving her Ph.D. and completing postdoctoral work on TGFbeta signaling in breast cancer progression at Vanderbilt, Yang came to work at NCI in 2009. 

“NCI was such a great fit, regardless of my different experience,” she said. “I was much older than other applicants, but they loved the way I do science. It’s a good opportunity for me to [have access] to NIH and NCI resources, intellectual as well as technology resources. I was very lucky to come here as a researcher.”—Dana Talesnik

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