Published: 15:23, June 14, 2024
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Scientist equates hard work with gaming
By Li Yingxue

Driving ambition fuels the passion required for success, Li Yingxue reports.


During high school, Yan Nieng envisioned a career in journalism. Even today, she jokes on her Weibo account that writing short tweets undermines her dream of becoming a literary giant.

However, after more than two decades in scientific research, Yan, now 47, finds the field of science to be an indispensable part of her life.

"I could not imagine myself not being a scientist," she remarks.

We must change the historical and cultural bias against women in academia and society by establishing gender equality and creating more female role models to show that women can and do lead, and deserve fair recognition.

Yan Nieng, founding president of the Shenzhen Medical Academy of Research and Translation

Yan likens her research to playing video games, where each step leads to new questions and challenges.

"I pursue scientific research because it's fun," she says, highlighting her passion for the ever-evolving nature of scientific discovery.

Yan, an academician at the Chinese Academy of Sciences and a professor at the School of Life Sciences at Tsinghua University, also serves as the founding president of the Shenzhen Medical Academy of Research and Translation and is the director of the Shenzhen Bay Laboratory.

Yan balances her demanding roles with a strict schedule: administrative duties during office hours and scientific research in the evenings.

READ MORE: Female biologist wins top award

She often reads and writes essays late into the night, relying on numerous cups of coffee to stay alert for early morning commitments.

The past two weeks have been as busy as ever for Yan. She presented reports at Stanford University and the University of California in the United States, fielded questions about China, and even made a trip to Paris.

This time, however, the trip was not for a science forum but to receive an award.

On May 28, at the UNESCO headquarters in Paris, Yan was honored with the 2024 L'Oreal-UNESCO For Women in Science International Award for the Asia-Pacific.

Yan was recognized for her groundbreaking research in structural biology, which has shed light on multiple disorders, including epilepsy and arrhythmia, and has informed on the treatment of pain syndromes.

As the eighth Chinese scientist to receive this prestigious award, Yan discovered the atomic structure of several membrane proteins responsible for the transport of ions and sugars across cell membranes, uncovering fundamental principles that govern cross-membrane transport.

"We aim to push the envelope of human knowledge," she says. "Using pioneering technology, I have transformed my work from the exploration of physiological and cellular processes to achieve a more precise view of potentially effective health solutions. Ultimately, I'd like science to understand the universe, the origins of life and the basis of consciousness."

In particular, Yan is exploring voltagegated sodium channels, which control the electrical signals that enable rapid responses to various stimuli in the body. For these channels to function effectively, they must open and close quickly.

In 2017, Yan used cryo-electron microscopy to reveal, in high resolution, the structure of a sodium channel isolated from electric eels.

This breakthrough allows scientists to observe the active mechanisms of medicines and toxic substances, paving the way for new therapeutic solutions.

"In structural biology, we always proudly say that seeing is believing," she says.

"Observing the structure at an atomic resolution allowed us to solve the puzzle immediately — I felt it was a miracle created by nature," she adds.

For Yan, winning awards used to be a matter of pride when she was younger.

However, this time, she feels a stronger sense of duty.

"Firstly, it's about sharing scientific knowledge with the public. Secondly, although I've tried to avoid it, I now see the importance of being a role model for younger scientists," she explains.

There's also the responsibility of being an ambassador for international exchange and communication, she adds.

"This recognition is not just a testament to my own efforts, but also a celebration of the countless individuals who have supported and inspired me along this remarkable journey.

"Aside from the scientific discoveries, it is truly gratifying to witness the growth of young scientists in my lab. It has been a privilege to work with my fabulous team members over the past 17 years. Without their support, I would not be able to stand here today," she says.

UNESCO describes Yan as a prominent figure in her field, stating that "she inspires female scientists worldwide and is a staunch advocate for gender equality in research and science education".

Among the other recipients of the award were Professor Rose Leke, an immunologist from Cameroon; Professor Alicia Kowaltowski, a biochemist from Brazil; Professor Nada Jabado from Canada, whose research focuses on human genetics and Professor Genevieve Almouzni, a molecular biologist from France.

Audrey Azoulay, UNESCO's director-general, emphasized the crucial role of science in addressing contemporary challenges, stating, "in a world where science is indispensable, we must leverage all talents".

She highlights the stark gender disparities in research, particularly in fields like artificial intelligence, where only one in 10 researchers is female.

Despite advancements in other sectors, gender inequalities persist in science, affecting publications, recognition, funding and career progression.

This glass ceiling is a very real obstacle but it can be broken and that is what we at UNESCO strive for every day, Azoulay says.

Since 1998, the L'Oreal Group and UNESCO have jointly pioneered the For Women in Science program, honoring 132 laureates from over 110 countries and regions since.

Jean-Paul Agon, L'Oreal Group chairman and president of Fondation L'Oreal, emphasizes their commitment to supporting female scientists.

He states that "the world needs science, and science needs women", highlighting the program's vital role in promoting gender equality in research.

Agon underscores the program's impact in giving female scientists the recognition they deserve, overcoming obstacles they face, and inspiring future generations.

He says they have supported, both personally and financially, more than 4,400 researchers in more than 140 countries and regions.

In 2023, two of them — Anne L'Huillier and Katalin Kariko — received Nobel Prizes in physics and medicine, respectively.

This brings the total number of For Women in Science International Award laureates who have won Nobel Prizes to seven.

Caring for female scientists

As a child, Yan was captivated by the traditional Chinese mythical novel A Journey to the West, where the main character can transform into objects of any size.

This sparked her curiosity about the submicroscopic world.

Yan credits her high school chemistry teacher, Guan Yi, as an inspiring role model. "She wasn't very tall, had short grey hair, and wore glasses with a confident smile," Yan recalls.

"She told me more than once, 'Girls are good at science. Believe in yourself.' And she was right," Yan says.

Yan's full list of role models is a long one and includes notable scientists Zhang Miman, Kuang Tingyun, Wang Zhizhen, Shi Yunyu, Shirley M. Tilghman, and many more.

Now, she is stepping into the role of a mentor herself, inspiring the next generation of women scientists.

She recalls not noticing the gender disparity among professors until she became one herself.

"When I looked around, there were far fewer female professors," she says.

"In graduate school, especially in biology, there are usually equal numbers of men and women. But as careers progress, the ratio of men increases dramatically while the number of women drops significantly.

"We must change the historical and cultural bias against women in academia and society by establishing gender equality and creating more female role models to show that women can and do lead, and deserve fair recognition," she says.

ALSO READ: Chinese scientist wins this year's laureate prize

Yan believes promoting female leaders is essential, with women leading the way themselves.

"As female leaders, we understand the unique challenges women face," she says.

At her institute, the Shenzhen Medical Academy of Research and Translation, she has appointed three female vice-presidents. This has attracted many female researchers, creating a supportive, female-friendly environment.

In keeping with the tradition of female scientists fighting for other women to enter the scientific workplace, she has organized an annual forum since 2015 dedicated to women in science.

"It is now my turn to create a similarly nurturing environment for young scholars, particularly women," she says.

"I always tell my students and my young colleagues to be brave and be yourself. You're not alone. We have faced many common challenges. The key is we have overcome all of them. If we can, you can," Yan says.

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