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Hongtao YU named Dean of School of Life Sciences
Yi FENG, Office of Public Affairs
Office of Public Affairs
After a 22-month vacancy, the School of Life Sciences names its first dean.
Professor Hongtao YU joined Westlake University full-time as Chair Professor of Cell Biology and the first Dean of the School of Life Sciences, after his recent resignation from the Department of Pharmacology at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center and Howard Hughes Medical Institute. While his lab space is still under construction, he is already recruiting postdocs and research assistants. Recruitment advertisements for these positions have already been posted.
Comfort zone isn’t a friend of innovation
Prof. YU received his B.S. in Chemistry from Peking University in 1990 and his Ph.D. in Chemistry from Harvard University in 1995. Following his postdoctoral training in Cell Biology at Harvard Medical School, he began his independent research career in 1999 as an Assistant Professor in the Department of Pharmacology at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center, where he was later promoted to Associate Professor with tenure and Chair Professor. From 2008 to 2019, YU was also an Investigator at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI). He held the Serena S. Simmons Distinguished Chair in Cancer Immunopharmacology before joining Westlake University in December 2019.
A recipient of the Damon Runyon Scholar Award (1999), YU also won the Burroughs Wellcome New Investigator Award in Pharmacological Sciences (2000), Packard Fellowship for Science and Engineering (2000), Leukemia and Lymphoma Society Scholar Award (2003), and W. M. Keck Distinguished Young Scholar Award (2003). He was elected a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) in 2012 and a Board Member of the Chinese Biological Investigator Society (CBIS) in 2018.
Despite this shining resume and a strong reputation in academic circles, YU keeps a low public profile. One can barely find any information about him aside from his research. He has dedicated all his time and effort to the pursuit of scientific research for the past two decades at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center. “But 20 years is a long time,” YU said laughing when asked about what triggered his return to China, “many researchers are always on the go: changing institutions every five to six years. Moving too frequently can slow down research momentum. On the other hand, if you stay too long in one place and become too comfortable, your perspective could become narrow and biased. This is no friend to innovation!”
Westlake University – the chance to achieve more
After making the decision to move, YU faced more questions: The US or China? Academia or industry? In the end, returning to China was the more exciting choice.
“I’ve seen a significant increase in both public interest and investment in scientific research over the past few years. This has led to an internationally competitive research environment in China. More and more Chinese students and postdocs from my lab in the US are now choosing to further their career back in China, and their success gives me confidence,” YU said, “The meteoric rise of Westlake University has caused quite a splash in the Chinese academic community abroad. I have known Yigong SHI, the founding president of Westlake University, for almost 20 years. I have been keeping an eye on Westlake since its inception.”
After observing Westlake University’s development and the open and inclusive academic atmosphere that it aims to foster, YU made up his mind. In addition to doing outstanding research, he wants to help build a world-class university.
YU already has a full workload: talking to principal investigators and getting familiar with the school’s affairs. He has a blueprint for the school in his mind: “a promised land for academic research, a place where students can communicate equally and freely with their mentors.” He sees his job as “to serve everyone” in reaching that goal.
Targeting genome instability to treat cancer
YU regards himself as an idealist but is also pragmatic in his research and administrative work. As soon as he took up the post as Dean, YU immediately kicked off building the lab and recruiting postdocs and research staff.
A veteran researcher in cell cycle and genome stability, YU combines cell biology, biochemistry, genetics and biophysics in his work and has made major contributions to the fundamental principles of chromosome segregation and genome stability. He will continue his research in these fields and aim at new breakthroughs upon joining Westlake University.
“Genome instability is a key feature of cancer cells, and we already know the vast majority of human cancer cells have many genetic mutations and the wrong number of chromosomes,” said YU. His lab studies the cell cycle checkpoint that guarantees cells get the correct number of chromosomes during division and maintain genome stability. Their work will uncover cancer-causing mechanisms and weaknesses of cancer cells, with the hope of developing new drugs to treat cancer.
“I want colleagues in my lab and at our school to be bold and to aim for major, original discoveries. We should also enjoy the actual process of making discoveries. Science is fun! I encourage like-minded colleagues to join us on this exciting journey.” Staying innovative is not only YU’s expectation of his colleagues and trainees, but also the challenge he set for himself after leaving the comfort zone.