Solving cell mysteries with chemist Yimon Aye

By: Linda B. Glaser,  A&S Communications
October 7, 2016

Team spirit fills Yimon Aye’s lab, symbolized by the “Aye Lab” t-shirts sported by its members.

“They really deeply care about each other,” says Aye, assistant professor of chemistry and chemical biology. “They will drop what they’re doing to help another lab member, whether a younger undergraduate or a senior postdoc coming in from a diverse field.”

Aye sets the tone for her lab team, making time for questions and also for fun. Toys perch in the nooks and crannies of her office and sprawl across her work table. For her, science is a profession to be enjoyed.

Her research begins with the fifty trillion cells (give or take a few) contained in the human body. Every one of these cell is affected by highly diverse reactive chemicals, both good and bad, at any given time. How these different chemical signals and cells interact to maintain a healthy balance in the body has been a long-standing mystery, one Aye is determined to solve.

Her lab took a unique, chemistry-driven approach to develop tools to study particular chemical signaling events, both in the context of a single cell and of a whole organism. This approach started out from “pure scratch,” says Aye, unrelated to her previous research. “It was a high, risk high reward approach for a problem that is very important for the biological field. It will be a breakthrough if we can solve it.

“I remember when we realized we could actually make the experiments work. It was in April, the spring semester of my first year at Cornell and it was incredibly exciting. It was a turning point.”

Aye, a Milstein Sesquicentennial Fellow, attributes her ability to tackle the complex biological research problems at the fundamental chemical level to her training in the cross-disciplinary fields of chemistry and biology and to the intellectual and scientific diversity at Cornell and Weill Medicine where she holds her secondary appointment. “The opportunities at the two campuses are incredibly unique,” she says. “My lab has been able to take on new approaches, new ideas, new skill sets, and new projects because of this collaborative environment.”

In her three years at Cornell Aye has taught a wide range of students – from freshmen in Ithaca to medical school students at Weil Cornell Medical School.  She says that biological faculty both at Cornell and Weill “have always opened the door to help me with ideas, technique transfer, and training opportunities whatever would be beneficial to my students. They really care, not just about their own research but about how we can mentor students to prepare them for their future beyond Cornell.”

The students and post-doc members in Aye’s lab hail from seven different countries, providing a diversity essential to doing good science, according to Aye. “It’s very important when you try to solve a complex research problem to bring in different perspectives, different cultural and scientific ideas,” she explains. “I personally favor thinking outside the box.”

Aye’s own path to Cornell took many twists and turns, beginning with enforced homeschooling from the age of eight; due to the political upheaval in Aye’s native Burma, schools were closed for a long time.  She eventually won a full scholarship to a boarding school in England, which led her to Oxford University where she studied science and chemistry. From Oxford, she went to Harvard University for graduate school, then to a post-doc at MIT before coming to Cornell.

“Growing up in a place like Burma had a huge impact on how I view education and the importance of scientific research,” says Aye. “I don’t take things for granted. It’s exciting for me to provide something to my students that I did not have as a younger student.”

Aye describes her move to England as a daunting experience. She couldn’t speak English, nor read or write it very well. Overcoming that challenge, she says, has given her empathy for international students. But she urges them to have no fear of college. “You just need drive and dedication and a supportive environment, which Cornell can provide.”

The international students in Aye’s lab – as well as those born in the U.S. – prove her point. Their momentum, energy and passion have enabled them to contribute research with a tremendous impact, despite the complexity of the multi-disciplinary science Aye does. And while it’s rare for third-year graduate students to have co-authorships in flagship journals, every one of hers does – and even some of her first-year graduate students do too.

“The level of graduate students we’re able to recruit is really high,” she says. “They come to Cornell because of the level of knowledge and dedication and excitement here about science. At Cornell they have the freedom to pursue their interests and what’s most exciting for them. My students can use the knowledge and expertise we have in our lab and also seek out other opportunities, like my grad student who reached out on his own to a professor in the vet school. I am very impressed with how brave and passionate my students are.”

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