A Diverse and Dynamic Career Path: The Transition from Biomedical Engineering to Becoming a Prostate Cancer Research Luminary - Jindan Yu

November 13, 2023

Jindan Yu shares her journey from a medical student in China to a leading researcher in prostate cancer in the US, emphasizing her passion for physics and math which led her to biomedical engineering and eventually to cancer genomics and epigenomics. She reflects on her recent move to Emory University, motivated by a desire for new challenges and opportunities to mentor others. Dr. Yu candidly discusses the challenges of balancing a demanding career with family life, particularly as a woman scientist with young children. She advises early career researchers to find comfortable work environments and to work hard without focusing on gender. Dr. Yu also highlights her exciting research on the HOXB13 gene mutation and its role in early-onset prostate cancer, underscoring the importance of understanding its mechanisms in cancer development.


Jindan Yu, MD, PhD, Emory University School of Medicine, Atlanta, GA

Andrea K. Miyahira, PhD, Director of Global Research & Scientific Communications, The Prostate Cancer Foundation

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Andrea Miyahira: Hi, I'm Andrea Miyahira, and I'm the Senior Director of Global Research and Scientific Communications at the Prostate Cancer Foundation. Today, I'm interviewing Dr. Jindan Yu about her career as a leader in prostate cancer research. Dr. Yu, thanks so much for joining me today.

Jindan Yu: It's my pleasure. Andrea, thank you for the invitation.

Andrea Miyahira: So you're a Professor of Urology and Human Genetics at Emory University. Can you tell us more about some of your other roles there?

Jindan Yu: So I was recruited to there to be the Fray Marshall Chair of Urological Research and this is still in process, so I did not put up my title yet. And then my actual title right now is Acting Professor of Urology and Human Genetics. So my main task there is really to build a prostate cancer or GU and a prostate cancer program there. And the focus is on cancer genomics and epigenomics. So that's why I'm leading the hub in the human genetics for cancer genomics and epigenomics.

Andrea Miyahira: That's so exciting. So tell us about your career path. What were some of your inspirations that led you to prostate cancer research and where you are today?

Jindan Yu: So that's really a very long process. So I was a medical student in China. I went to Beijing Medical University, so now it's called Peking University Health Science Center. My passion was really, when I was a kid, it was really physics and math. So after I graduated from medical school, I feel I want to come to the US to get more training. And I went into biomedical engineering because I love math and physics. So while doing my PhD in biomedical engineering in the University of Michigan, I was in genetic engineering because my biology background.

Then after I got my PhD, so I was working on the microarray gene expression, global gene expression profiling for my PhD thesis. Then I was looking for a lab that really can do the best in that area. So I found Arul's lab where I did a postdoc. So that's my training. Then after that, being with Arul for four or five years, I was recruited to Northwestern University in Chicago as an assistant professor. So I was there for 14 years before I recently I moved to Emory University to be the vice chair for research in urology.

Andrea Miyahira: Yeah. So you recently moved to Emory, I think it was about eight months ago or so. So tell us about that choice to move and what you're going to be doing, a little bit more about what you're going to be doing now with Emory.

Jindan Yu: Right. It was really a very tough decision because you can see, in my career, I grow up in Northwestern University. I love Northwestern University. I was so proud of it and I was very grateful for everyone who have really fostered my career development there. They were really super nice. And Chicago is a beautiful city. So it was really a very hard decision. But I think there's many reasons for the move, but the main move, reason is really, I think I am curious, I want a challenge. I feel I'm a little too comfortable in Northwestern after being there for 14 years, and I think it's a little bit challenging. It is important for my personal development. And it's like you climb a mountain, you just want to get up there to see what's there. Maybe there's nothing but it's just the curiosity really to get up there to see the world.

And also I think another good thing about moving is, you get to meet and know more people, so you kind of have a bigger world. So you know more people and their work. And in this position I think it also put me in or given me an opportunity to really mentor or cultivate the career of many others. So that's a way to give back. Also increase my vision of things. I'm no longer just focused on my lab. I'm also focused on the development of other people, their career. So I think that kind of broadened the world for me. So that's really in addition to the potential to do bigger science. So those are all the various reasons that eventually helped me make this really difficult decision to move.

Andrea Miyahira: I think that's so inspiring, the idea to broaden your horizons and climb a larger mountain than before.

Jindan Yu: Right.

Andrea Miyahira: Are there any barriers that you faced in your career path that you'd want to talk about?

Jindan Yu: Barriers? I think for a woman scientist, the most challenging thing is really balance work life especially. I have two daughters. So when I started my tenure track in Northwestern in 2009, I had my daughters of four and six, so they really needed me. But I live in a suburb called Naperville in Chicago and it's like I take the change, it's like one hour and 20 minutes door to door one way. So I used to leave home at 7:00 AM and come back home 7:00 PM. So I think I missed a lot of time with my kids. And of course, I have a very supportive husband, that's how this can actually work out.

But I really missed a lot of times with my kids and at their school. I don't follow any of those. And by the time I go through my tenure track, they're teenagers, they're no longer needing me. So I had my sacrifice I think. So it's really the balance. My kids are still very close to me, but sometimes I feel sorry that in the pictures they had to various places, there's no me in there. So that's really something I wish I should have done better.

Andrea Miyahira: I guess from your experiences, what's a main piece of advice that you would give to an early career researcher who wants to follow in your footsteps?

Jindan Yu: For an early career researcher, I think really when you are pursuing your career, my link to the question we just talk about, maybe try to spend a little bit more time with kids if possible. I think that's much more doable these days with a lot of virtual meetings, and you can work from home maybe two days every week to be with your kids. So it's different from my time. I have to go like 7:00 AM to 7:00 PM every day. So I think the world is a little different at these times. So I think that will really help a lot of junior faculty when they are going through their tenure track. They don't have to sacrifice as much as I did. The other thing I think, advice, I think is really find a place you feel comfortable, which I think is very important for women faculty because I have to feel comfortable in this room with my colleagues before I can even speak.

So it's really when... That, it helps me. I landed on Northwestern for that reason. It's the reason for my tenure track position. So you have to feel comfortable in that place with your colleagues. You are going to interact frequently. And also I think another important thing for a woman or junior faculty is really, you have to work very hard. And especially for a woman, when you work, you don't think you are a woman. The gender doesn't matter. You forget about you are a woman, it doesn't matter. So just work very hard. That's what I think is really important.

Andrea Miyahira: Thank you. And just as we close this, give us a little peek into some of the most exciting new research that you're currently working on.

Jindan Yu: Yeah. So just for the work we published, I think I was excited about the HOXB13 story because this germline mutation G84E has been reported for more than a decade. But the mechanism, how this... So G84E mutation, germline mutation is associated with early onset prostate cancer. But how it works really, it's a mystery. So our study we showed on this... So HOXB13 has this new function or unreported function that it can interact with histone deacetylase to inhibit gene expression. A lot of those genes are lipids, lipid enzymes that are critical for lipid biosynthesis. And PSA is one of that.

So when you have this mutation, PSA goes up. So that's why, I think that's one reason those patients get diagnosed earlier because they have a higher PSA. And in terms of the mechanism for the oncogenesis, it's really the lipid that is playing a major role in leading the tumorigenesis, which we still need to have more work to follow up on that in these kind of patients with germline mutation. We try to reach out to people to work on that. There's a sample size, it's very small. So that's the challenge. But I think with this work, we are really proud of it and excited about it.

Andrea Miyahira: Well thank you so much for joining me today and sharing all of this advice and about your career path. I learned so much.

Jindan Yu: Thank you, Andrea.