Meet Dr. Wei Yan

Written by Dr. Zhibing Zhang (SSR’s Diversity Committee) in celebration of AAPI Heritage Month

The Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) Heritage Month is annually celebrated in the United States during the month of May. This commemoration recognizes the contributions and influence of Asian Americans and Pacific Islander Americans to the history, culture, and achievements of the United States. In celebration of AAPI Heritage Month, Dr. Zhibing Zhang (SSR’s Diversity Committee) sat down with Dr. Wei Yan from UCLA Medical Center to learn about his work and career.

Dr. Wei Yan is Senior Investigator at The Lindquist Institute at Harbor-UCLA Medical Center and Professor of Medicine at David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA. He received his M.D. from China Medical University and Ph.D. from University of Turku in Finland. After post-doc training at Baylor College of Medicine, he started his independent research as an Assistant Professor at University of Nevada, Reno School of Medicine (UNR Med) in 2004. In the subsequent sixteen years at UNR Med, he moved up the ranks and became a full professor in 2013. In 2016, he was named the UNR Foundation Professor, the highest honor the University bestows upon its faculty.

Dr. Yan’s research interests lie in genetic and epigenetic control of fertility, and contributions of the gametic epigenome to fertilization, development and adulthood health. Dr. Yan pioneered the development of the germ cell small noncoding RNA field, added new knowledge to the molecular regulation of fertility, especially in the areas of sperm assembly during late spermiogenesis and physiological functions of motile cilia in reproductive tracts, and promoted the translation of basic research findings into non-hormonal contraceptive development. He was also among the people who developed and tested the hypothesis that gametic small RNAs mediate epigenetic inheritance. Dr. Yan has published over 160 papers in impactful journals with >11,700 citations. He received numerous academic awards, including the 2009 Society for the Study of Reproduction (SSR) Young Investigator Award, the 2012 American Society of Andrology (ASA) Young Andrologist Award, the 2013 Nevada Healthcare Hero Award for Research and Technology, the 2017 University of Nevada, Reno Outstanding Researcher Award, the 2018 SSR Research Award and the 2020 Nevada System of Higher Education Regents’ Research Award (mid-career). He was elected as a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) in 2017. In 2023, Dr. Yan was named the SSR Distinguished Fellow.

Dr. Yan has mentored six junior faculty members and trained twenty post-docs and thirty-one graduate students so far. He served on the SSR Program Committee (2007, 2014, and 2016), the SSR Awards Committee (2015-2018), the Board of Reviewing Editors of Biology of Reproduction (BOR) (2009-2013), and as Associate Editor (2013-2017) and co-Editor-in-Chief of BOR (2017-2021). He is currently serving on the ASA Board of Directors (2022-2025) and the Executive Committee of the North America Testis Workshop (NATW). He co-chaired the 2019 ASA annual meeting and the 2022 XXVI NATW.

1. What is your current position, and what does it entail?

I am a Senior Investigator at The Lundquist Institute for Biomedical Innovation at Harbor-UCLA and Professor of Medicine at David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA. I also serve as Director for the National Center for Reproductive Epigenomics. In these roles, I actively participate in teaching, research, administration, and academic services.

2. Can you talk a little bit about yourself, where are you from? What first attracted you to the world of science? And how did you get to be in your current position?

I was born and raised in China and initially planned to pursue a career in medicine. However, after completing medical school in 1990, I realized that I had a passion for research and decided to do a Ph.D. to better equip myself for biomedical research. I spent five years (1995-2000) pursuing my Ph.D. at the University of Turku in Finland.

In 2001, I moved to Houston, Texas, and completed my post-doctoral training at Baylor College of Medicine with Dr. Martin Matzuk. I began my independent research career in 2004 and spent the next 16 years at the University of Nevada, Reno School of Medicine before relocating to Los Angeles to join The Lundquist Institute at Harbor-UCLA in 2020.

Throughout my life, I have been fascinated by the natural world and the complexities of life, which is why I find research so fulfilling. My curiosity and passion for discovery have driven me to pursue a career in biomedical research and to continually seek new avenues for scientific exploration.

3. What words of inspiration would you like to share with the future generation of scientists?

To the future generation of scientists, I would like to share a quote that has always inspired me: “The real art of biomedical research is to use the simplest methods to demonstrate the most complex biology.” This quote emphasizes the importance of keeping things simple and straightforward, even when dealing with complex biological systems.

So, my advice to the future generation of scientists would be to embrace simplicity in your work. Don’t be afraid to take a step back and ask yourself if you can approach a problem in a simpler way. And always remember that even the most complex biological systems can be understood with the right mindset and the right approach.

4. Are there ways in which you think your heritage has affected your perspective or career trajectory?

As an Asian American in the field of biomedical research, I have definitely experienced the effects of my heritage on my perspective and career trajectory. While Asian Americans are not a minority in STEM, we are still underrepresented in leadership roles and awards. This reality is often referred to as the “bamboo ceiling,” and breaking through it can be a significant challenge. However, I feel fortunate to have found a supportive community in my home society, SSR, which has recognized every success I have achieved in developing my career. I believe that this recognition has given me the confidence to pursue even greater accomplishments. Despite the progress made in recent years, there is still much work to be done to increase representation for Asian Americans in STEM leadership roles and awards. I remain hopeful that more of my Asian American colleagues will break through the bamboo ceiling and thrive, just as I have been able to with the support of SSR.

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