'We weren't allowed to touch doorknobs with laboratory gloves'

Interview with Yan Yang, co-founder of the UvA Alumni Network

She studied so hard that she didn’t get to see much of Amsterdam, but Chinese student Yan Yang did learn to conduct research at the University of Amsterdam (UvA). That brought her to New York, where she obtained a doctorate in molecular biology, and in 2014, set up the New York UvA Alumni Network.

Yan Yang

When Yan Yang moved from China to the Netherlands at the age of 22 to begin a Master’s degree in Integrative Plant Sciences at the University of Amsterdam, she turned out to be the only student on the degree programme. But she didn’t mind. Professor Michel Haring, with whom Yang is still in contact over 10 years later, put together a personal study programme. This programme led to doctoral research in New York, where she still lives and works.

SPUI spoke to Yang via Skype. She explained that she grew up in Beijing as an only child. Her first name means ‘knowledgeable’. ‘I think I almost am,’ she laughs. As a child, Yang wanted to become an archaeologist or an astronomer, but they preferred not to take on girls for archaeology. ‘I don’t know whether it’s true, but they said it was problematic if girls went on excursions.’ In astronomy, students mainly seemed to do physics rather than gaze at stars. She didn’t want to do biology either, because she didn’t want to experiment on animals. Because she was just as fascinated by plants as by animals, she opted for horticulture.

Cell lines

In Amsterdam, Yang nevertheless came into contact with biology through Haring. At UvA, she also learnt to conduct actual research. ‘They were very strict there. We weren’t allowed to touch things that came into contact with the outside world, such as doorknobs, with laboratory gloves. So we knew that we definitely couldn’t take anything out of the lab.’ In the US, they aren’t as careful’, explains Yang. ‘In the beginning, I thought I was going to die there. I am happy that I learnt to conduct research in the Netherlands.’

Yan Yang

During her American work placement, Yang discovered that biologists no longer experiment on animals, but on cell lines. Which is how it came about that she obtained her doctorate in biology in New York after all, in a study into the role of proteins in the development of cancer.

Since completing her doctorate, she has been working for Oxford Nanopore Technologies on the development of novel applications for a hand-held DNA sequencer, a revolutionary portable device that can read DNA. DNA is in every living thing, and is therefore present in both our blood and tree leaves. Yang is happy that her work helps people around the world to enjoy the benefits of this new technology.

Yang has good memories of Amsterdam; the only problem was that the supermarket closed earlier than she would have liked. But she didn’t get to see much of the city whilst she was there. Her life in Amsterdam consisted of studying and learning English. ‘In Beijing, I was the best student in English, but during my first lecture at UvA, I only understood one word: protein.’ 

Yang’s books from her first semester are full of scribblings of Chinese characters. ‘I translated everything into Chinese for six months, and that’s how I learnt English.’

Yang can remember one afternoon, around lunchtime, when she cycled to a lecture on the Science Park. She had studied right up until the last moment and was in a rush. She saw a few ducks waddling beside the canal. ‘I want to be a duck,’ she thought. ‘Waddling whilst other people are at work.’ She didn’t get the chance to do that in Amsterdam, but during her holiday, she finally took a stroll through Central Park in New York whilst the rest of the city was at work. 

Yan Yang

Jealous

Although Yang has been living in New York for almost 10 years now, she feels a strong bond with UvA. In 2014, she was one of the founders of the New York UvA Alumni Chapter. ‘I did that because I was jealous. People around me had alumni events that they could attend after work, but I didn’t.’ She enjoys bringing people together. ‘At university, you meet people from your own study programme,’ she explains, ‘but at alumni events, you meet people from all disciplines and of all ages.’ One of our regular guests is a 90-year-old UvA alumnus who once worked at the New York hospital where Yang conducted her doctoral research. Without the network, they would never have met.

Yang, along with the other alumni ambassadors, organises two alumni events a year. ‘That’s enough,’ she says. ‘Every evening, people in New York have 20 events they could be attending.’ But Yang wants to expand the network. ‘There are still plenty of UvA alumni in New York to reach.’ Why does she think an alumni network is so important? ‘People who have attended the same university share a particular outlook on life. And as a UvA alumnus, there are plenty of ways to give back – not just with money, but also by forming part of a society.’ 

Yan Yang – 1982

  • 2004 Bachelor’s degree in Horticulture, China Agricultural University, summa cum laude
  • 2006 Master’s degree in Integrative Plant Sciences, UvA
  • 2006 work placement at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, Cold Spring Harbor (US)
  • 2007-2009 research assistant at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, New York
  • 2014-present co-founder and ambassador of UvA Alumni Chapter New York
  • 2015 doctorate in Molecular Biology, New York University School of Medicine
  • 2016-present Applications Scientist at Oxford Nanopore Technologies, New York

Published by  Bureau Alumnirelaties en Universiteitsfonds

Original Dutch text: Charlotte van Oostrum

25 September 2017