By Ann Weber
As a child growing up in Burma, Yimon Aye, Assistant Professor of Chemistry at Cornell University, was always fascinated by tools, engines, electronics, and fixing things. But due to political unrest, receiving a proper higher education in science in her homeland was simply impossible. Doing well on internationally-accredited exams enabled Yimon to win a full scholarship to study for sixth-form (high school equivalent) in the UK. She then studied chemistry at Somerville College, Oxford University. Yimon notes that Somerville is historically a very special home for nurturing women leaders such as Margaret Thatcher, Indira Gandhi, and Dorothy Hodgkin.
Yimon moved to the United States to study synthetic organic chemistry with Professor David A. Evans at Harvard University, where she earned her Ph.D. degree in 2009. Her hunger for learning led her to pursue a post-doctoral fellowship in another field, biological chemistry. As a Damon Runyon Cancer Research postdoctoral fellow at MIT in Prof. JoAnne Stubbe’s lab, she learned a completely new field, having never studied biology before, even at the high-school level. Looking back, Yimon credits this dual training at the frontiers of small-molecule chemistry and mechanistic biology with endowing her lab with a unique, cross-disciplinary vision. “I feel these challenges have allowed me to go beyond my comfort zone and tackle the biggest challenges in the complex chemical processes of life during my independent career,” says Yimon. “My background is unconventional compared to those trained in mainstream oncology and biochemistry/chemical biology. I think that helps my lab at Cornell in two unique ways: first, we tend to see solutions to problems in different ways. Second, because I’ve made this pretty drastic switch in my training, I’m not afraid of failure, and my lab has been fearless in taking new directions in research and successfully implementing new techniques.”
At Cornell, Yimon’s lab is pioneering new methods to deconvolute unconventional cell signaling paradigms. For example, they developed T-REX™ (targetable reactive electrophiles and oxidants), which allows them to link specific upstream protein modifications to downstream responses. This technique can be applied in vitro and in vivo in zebrafish embryos to study reactive electrophile and oxygen signaling pathways which are believed to be important in neuroprotection, stress defense, and immune responses.
Aside from solving disease-related problems, another key driving force for Yimon is closely tied to her personal background. “Education is a real privilege, and being educated at world-class institutions like Oxford and Harvard, and being taught by inspirational teachers, are true privileges that one cannot take for granted,” she explains. “I am here today because many individuals, including my family who supported and believed in me, have helped me directly and indirectly along the way, and I want to continue working hard to actively pay it forward.” Yimon is keen to nurture aspiring students from disadvantaged backgrounds and do for them what her teachers, mentors and philanthropic foundations have done for her to help her get to where she is today.
“I never grew up thinking that I would leave my homeland, study at Oxford and Harvard, or be in a position where I can serve as a teacher, academic, and scientist at a first-rate institution in the United States. But I have always tried to do my best in any small step I’ve taken. Staying focused and going with a ‘work hard, think hard, and have no fear’ attitude helps,” she says. “I also think that having an appreciation of the opportunities in life and showing gratitude can go a long way.”