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Environmental Factor

Environmental Factor

Your Online Source for NIEHS News

August 2018

With tenure, Yao will continue groundbreaking research

Humphrey Yao, Ph.D., head of the NIEHS Reproductive Developmental Biology Group, was awarded tenure by the National Institutes of Health.

Humphrey Yao Yao’s trainees have said he sets the mentoring bar high by his excellent support. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

Humphrey Yao, Ph.D., arrived at NIEHS in 2010 to run the Reproductive Developmental Biology Group. In April, he was awarded tenure by the National Institutes of Health (NIH).

Yao’s research focuses on the cellular processes that establish male and female reproductive organs. He also conducts studies to better understand the long-term reproductive health effects of in utero exposure to endocrine disruptors.

Shifting paradigms and research tools

Recent work from Yao demonstrated that female embryos actively promote removal of the male reproductive tract through the activity of a protein known as COUP-TFII. This observation challenges an old theory that female reproductive tracts develop by default when androgens, or male hormones, are not present.

Yao’s plans for future research involve expanding from classic mouse models. He and his lab will use single cell sequencing and genomic analyses to understand how cell fate is established in the gonads and reproductive tracts.

Tenure, times two

Yao received his doctoral degree from the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign and performed postdoctoral work at Duke University Medical Center. Before moving to NIEHS, he was a tenured professor at the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign.

Carmen Williams, M.D., Ph.D., deputy chief of the NIEHS Reproductive and Developmental Biology Laboratory (RDBL), met Yao at a conference and invited him to apply for an open position at NIEHS. He said his motivation for leaving a tenured academic position was rooted in the resources available at NIEHS, where he could perform state-of-the-art research.

“Although I encouraged Dr. Yao to consider applying for a position in RDBL, I never really expected that he would give up a tenured, NIH grant-funded position to come work with us,” Williams said. “I’m so glad he did, because he has been a stellar colleague and friend.”

To Yao, the process of achieving tenure a second time was less stressful. “I focused my energy on using NIEHS’s superb resources to perform groundbreaking research while serving as a mentor,” he said (see sidebar).

Paying it forward

Yao’s belief in the importance of contributing to the scientific community is demonstrated by his service.

Yao also teaches a course about improving public speaking, to help scientists communicate their discoveries more effectively.

(Kiri Hoff, Ph.D., is an Intramural Research Training Award fellow in the NIEHS Mitochondrial DNA Replication Group.)

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