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Scientist equates hard work with gaming

By LI YINGXUE | China Daily | Updated: 2024-06-14 06:45
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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.

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.

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.

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