Yishi Jin received her B.S. Degree from Peking University, China and her Ph.D. from the University of California, Berkeley. She completed her postdoctoral training at MIT.
Her lab, located at the University of California, San Diego, studies neurodevelopment using the nematode C. elegans. Through studying the mechanisms of the development and function of the nervous system at a much simpler level in C. elegans, her lab connects these discoveries to the understanding of human neurological disorders and neuronal repair.
1. What are C. elegans and their importance?
C. elegans are a non-parasitic (i.e. does not infect human or other animals) nematode or worm. Their ecological importance is not well understood but they are great laboratory animals, because they reproduce rapidly and have a three days life cycle, making them easy to grow and store. Their body is transparent, which allows people to see their cells with microscopy and observe C. elegans without any problems. C. elegans are tiny, as largest adult is only 1mm. Each worm has the exact same number of cells at the exact same locations, so the researchers know exactly what’s going on with this worm throughout its life. Its genome (total DNA) is also small but still has all the genes that are important for life with the same functions as those in humans.
2. How does your work transfer over to the human mind?
With the understanding of how the genes in worms work, I can translate this knowledge to how the same genes work in humans. Essentially, the commonalities between the two allow for me to mirror my discoveries made about C. elegans in the human brain cells.
3. How do synaptic connections remodel?
A synaptic connection is the connection from one neuron to another. They remodel by moving the synaptic vesicle release sites to a new site, therefore remodeling the information transmission from one cell to a different cell.
4. How do axons regenerate? What implications does their regeneration have on humans?
In adult animals, after injuries, axons regenerate rather poorly. My work revolves around finding genes that can help those axons to grow better. These genes in worms all have same counterparts in humans. So, my overall goal is to provide doctors with clues on what to look in patients with impaired axons.
5. What do you teach? Do you prefer teaching or research?
I teach undergrads at all levels, from freshmen to seniors, and also graduate students, in lecture-style classes. I monitor discussions and also mentor students to read about research findings and prepare public presentations. I view teaching and research as complementary to an academic professorial life: teaching is fulfilling when I know students are learning new knowledge, while research is exciting when I make new discoveries.
6. What has been your greatest achievement or breakthrough?
My greatest achievement has been finding out the function of genes that have important roles in development of the nervous systems which were not known to anyone before. The work from my lab has shown over a dozen genes from worm have similar functions in mammals.
7. Do you have any advice for those interested in pursuing a career in your field?
Be very curious, passionate, persistent, resilient, independent, creative, and critical. These are the skills needed to become a successful (and happy) researcher. Lab work is incredibly time-consuming and draining, and definitely isn’t for everyone, so you really have to want to do it to do anything of importance in your work.