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.
- Co-chair of the 2018 Gordon Research Conference on Mammalian Reproduction.
- Partner with the Campion Fund in hosting an October 2017 meeting at NIEHS on the basic science behind male reproduction.
- Associate editor for the journal Biology of Reproduction.
- Editorial board member for the journals Sexual Development and, from 2012 to 2017, Endocrinology.
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.)