Xia Yang, UCLA professor of integrative biology and physiology, conducts research that provides major insights into health concerns worldwide and helps us understand the complex molecular mechanisms underlying common metabolic disorders, including coronary artery disease, diabetes and obesity.
Her laboratory also studies the molecular mechanisms that connect metabolic disorders with brain function and neurological disorders. Yang’s research is revealing how genetic and environmental risk factors perturb specific gene networks, and how gene networks that go awry are linked to many diseases.
Yang’s research has led to a better understanding of how genes in the brain can be damaged — and how to prevent it. In 2016, she was the senior author of a study that found genes can be damaged by fructose, a sugar that’s common in the Western diet, in a way that could lead to a range of diseases, from diabetes to cardiovascular disease, and from Alzheimer’s disease to attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.
She and her research team discovered good news as well: An omega-3 fatty acid known as docosahexaenoic acid, or DHA, seems to reverse the harmful changes produced by fructose.
The research team sequenced more than 20,000 genes in the brains of rats, and identified more than 700 genes in the hypothalamus (the brain’s major metabolic control center) and more than 200 genes in the hippocampus (which helps regulate learning and memory) that were altered by fructose. The altered genes they identified, the vast majority of which are comparable to genes in humans, are among those that interact to regulate metabolism, cell communication and inflammation.
For this research, Yang and co-senior author Fernando Gomez-Pinilla, a UCLA professor of neurosurgery and integrative biology and physiology, were honored with 2016 Breakthrough Awards by Popular Mechanics.
In 2017, Yang and Gomez-Pinilla reported that head injuries can harm hundreds of genes in the brain in a way that increases people’s risk for a wide range of neurological and psychiatric disorders.
The researchers identified for the first time master genes that they believe control hundreds of other genes that are linked to Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, post-traumatic stress disorder, stroke, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, autism, depression, schizophrenia and other disorders. Knowing what the master genes are could give scientists targets for new pharmaceuticals to treat brain diseases.
Yang and Gomez-Pinilla also discovered how head injuries adversely affect individual cells and genes that can lead to serious brain disorders. The life scientists provided the first cell “atlas” of the hippocampus when it is affected by traumatic brain injury. The team proposed gene candidates for treating brain diseases associated with traumatic brain injury, such as Alzheimer’s disease and post-traumatic stress disorder.
When asked about the challenges of being a woman scientist, Yang said, “I find it challenging to have others seriously listen to my perspectives and opinions at times, and it’s harder to get work funded, published and respected when I am the sole senior principal investigator. It could be just my perceptions, but as a data scientist, I look for patterns, and this is the pattern that is clear to me over the years. I certainly wish that non-scientific factors, such as gender, ethnicity and age, do not play a role in research and academia.”
Despite those challenges, Yang has had the support of many female colleagues at UCLA, including Tracy Johnson, dean of the division of life sciences in the UCLA College; Victoria Sork, former dean of life sciences; Rachelle Crosbie-Watson, the chair of the integrative biology and physiology department; and Amy Rowat, Elaine Hsiao and Patty Phelps, vice chairs of the department.
“Not only have they made a positive impact on me, but they also reshaped the equality and diversity landscape in life sciences,” Yang said. “I have been fortunate to have such brilliant women at UCLA and beyond, whose unwavering support has boosted my career growth. It has been particularly gratifying to witness so many outstanding women scientists taking on leadership roles.”
She adds: “Of course, I also acknowledge the generous support from many of my wonderful male colleagues. It is all of them who elevate my career and research program.”
Throughout Yang’s career, many have provided mentorship and guidance. But Pek Lum, who was her direct supervisor when Yang was a research scientist at Rosetta Inpharmatics, was especially influential.
“She showed me what resilience is and how a strong vision — coupled with persistence, a positive attitude, a flexible mindset, team spirit and genuine caring toward people around you — can help you overcome the many challenges in life and at work,” Yang said. “I always think of her when I encounter challenges and difficult decision points, and I ask myself what she would do if she were in my situation. That has helped me in many important occasions to stand my ground when I strongly believe in something, yet know when to compromise and be flexible.”
While reflecting on the strong and successful women who have “inspired, encouraged and elevated” her career, Yang also strives to do the same for others in the science field. “I hope to contribute to a more positive and equal environment for all,” she said.