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Cynthia Yin: Greeting a Bright Future in Science

Recent high school graduate Cynthia Yin is a well-rounded student who has a great mind for science, a gift for music and a mean game of golf. This class valedictorian excels in many areas of life and has a wall of awards to prove it, including an SLAS Tony B. Academic Travel Award. Her greatest accomplishment, however, is seeking opportunity and using it to advance her knowledge.


She was accepted to eight universities this spring – among them Stanford University, Harvard University, Princeton University, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), California Institute of Technology (Caltech) and University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA). However, when she starts school at Stanford in September 2014, campus life will not be a new experience for recent high school graduate Cynthia Yin.

Since the summer of 2011, 18-year-old Yin has conducted graduate-level research in UCLA Micro Systems Laboratories under Chih-Ming Ho, Ph.D. "I contacted several professors at UCLA to ask if I could do volunteer research in their labs. I was grateful that Dr. Ho let me volunteer," says Yin, whose participation in the Ventura County Science Fair (VCSF) for seven years led her to progressively more complex research projects and a need for an academic lab in which to do them.

"My work in Dr. Ho's lab introduced me to the forefront of pioneering studies," says Yin, who explored the impact of protein inhibitors on the cell's cytoskeleton, optimal drug cocktails for intervention in cancer cell motility, and macroscale pattern formation from a nanoscale catalyst. "Multidisciplinary research not only challenges me, but also elevates my skill and knowledge in a wide variety of fields," she continues. It also earned the young scholar multiple awards at the VCSF, the California State Science Fair, the Intel Science Talent Search and the Intel International Science & Engineering Fair.

Yin's lab work in 2012 and 2013 also led her to SLAS. Her research at UCLA during these two years resulted in the poster, Optimal Drug Cocktails for Intervention in Triple-Negative Breast Cancer Cell Motility via Feedback System Control, and earned her a trip to SLAS2014 to present it at the Student Poster Competition, thanks to the Tony B. Academic Travel Award Program. Yin was among 46 students, graduate students, post-doc researchers and junior faculty members who received Tony B. awards to present their scientific achievements at SLAS2014. The award provides each winner with conference registration, airfare (or personal auto/mileage reimbursement) and shared accommodations at an SLAS conference hotel. Based on availability, Tony B. awardees may also enroll in a short course for no additional cost. Yin chose to attend the short course, Sample Management: Best Practice, Trends and Challenges, noting: "My research itself doesn't involve sample management but it was interesting to see the different practices and challenges of this discipline."

"SLAS2014 gave me a chance to network with other professionals in academia and industry," says Yin, who thoroughly enjoyed her conference experience. "I found the event was right on the cutting edge, and it's not something to which most high school students have access. I was really honored to have this opportunity. It helped me contribute to the field as well as network with leaders in other fields to see what they have to offer." Additionally, through the Passport to Prizes program, Yin met hundreds of exhibitors with new and innovative technologies. Yin's name was selected during the Passport to Prizes drawing and she won a prize for completing her exhibition passport.

Yin adds that she was impressed with the amount of ongoing research. "At SLAS2014, I saw I have only touched the tip of the iceberg," she continues. "It's exciting for me because it's opening doors to what I potentially can do with my education and career in the future."

Portrait of a Young Researcher

Professor Ho agrees that the future looks bright for his student. "I have helped several hundred high school students who have trained through my lab over the years, and she is obviously the top one," comments Ho, who is the Ben Rich-Lockheed Martin Professor in the UCLA School of Engineering, as well as a professor in the university's Departments of Mechanical & Aerospace Engineering and Bioengineering.

"Cynthia is smart, persistent and works hard," Ho continues. "When you work in the lab, it can be more frustration than excitement. The research period is 99 percent tough and only the last one percent is what yields a reward. She works very well in all aspects of this research, from setting up the lab to understanding the phenomena." He also applauds Yin's supportive mother, "who would drive Cynthia to the lab and remain here while she worked with my graduate students," he reports, adding that Yin worked anywhere from 10 to 20 hours per week in the lab. Under the direction of senior Ph.D. students, Yin had the opportunity to complete literature reviews, organize the lab, conduct experiments and prepare the resulting data. "She is very innovative in her research," he observes.

Yin credits Ho with guiding her research and choice of projects each year. "As my advisor, he supported everything I have done in research," she says. "Also, my mentors at UCLA have been a huge source of advice and support." She also acknowledges UCLA's eight-week science program, Center for Scalable and Integrated NanoManufacturing (SINAM), for giving her an opportunity to conduct full-time research for two summers and present it to UCLA students and faculty through Summer Programs for Undergraduate Research (SPUR). "Having access to cutting-edge research and these facilities has helped me along my research path and contributed to my achievements in science," says Yin.

Yin's 2012 and 2013 research explored ways to use Feedback System Control  (FSC), a method employed in much of the research in Dr. Ho's lab, to reduce the extensive time and costs required to determine effective drug combinations with multiple concentrations to treat triple-negative breast cancer (TNBC). As Yin cites in her poster abstract, approximately 100,000 of the half a million patient deaths caused by breast cancer every year are attributed to TNBC. In this form of the disease, cells do not over-express three key membrane proteins (estrogen, progesterone and Her2/neu receptors) that typically distinguish most breast cancers. Therefore, TNBC tumors do not respond to traditional receptor-targeted therapies. In her research, Yin applied single drug treatment as well as drug cocktails at various concentrations to TNBC cells to inhibit cell motility and cancer metastasis. She also performed fluorescence microscopy to evaluate cytoskeletal integrity in response to drug treatment, and time-lapse microscopy to analyze cell migration. Through these experiments, she proved that drug combinations at lower dosages, rather than individual drugs at higher concentrations, are more effective in treating TNBC.

As Yin enters her fourth summer in Dr. Ho's lab in 2014, she will begin working with his son, JALA Editor-in-Chief and SLAS Vice President Dean Ho, Ph.D. She anticipates expanding her previous TNBC research by investigating connections between cell motility and viability as well as extending the drug library to explore alternative drug cocktails. She also plans to develop a math model to simulate her results.

"The research process itself poses a lot of obstacles," observes Yin. "You plan everything out, conduct your literature review, formulate your project ideas and prepare your protocols and experimentation. Then, even after you have everything set up, sometimes there are unforeseen setbacks that can hinder you from moving on as scheduled. That's a given with research. Tackling that and regaining momentum are the challenges."

For Yin, who spent more than three years as a high school researcher in Dr. Ho's lab, another challenge can be the perception of others about one so young. "People are taken aback by my age," she says, adding that differences in educational level present another challenge. "Because I haven't had all the college classes that a typical student in the lab would have had, I have to do a lot of literature review on my own in order to get up to par on these subjects. I also rely on the Advanced Placement (AP) classes I took in high school," she continues.

Her hard work pays off when she enters science competitions. "People see the research I have done and seem not to expect this kind of work from a high school student," Yin says. "Attending these science competitions shows me that I am not the only one interested in science!"

What Makes that Work?

Yin has possessed a fascination for what makes things work since early childhood. "When I was younger I always wanted to figure out how things worked. I would disassemble gadgets around the house, such as alarm clocks, audio cassettes and telephones," she explains. "When I took away the cover I saw all the intricate components inside and I thought that was cool."

To indulge this curiosity, and maybe to spare the small electronics in the household, Yin's family joined the Association of Science and Technology Centers (ASTC), a nonprofit organization of science centers and museums. "There are a lot of hands-on exhibits at these science museums that also helped spark my curiosity for science," she says. The Boston Museum of Science's Theater of Electricity impressed her with its center-stage star: indoor lightning provided by an air-insulated Van de Graaff generator. The Science Center of Minnesota's Cell Lab in St. Paul wowed her with its hands-on experiments. "Those were a precursor to what I am doing now," Yin continues.

"I also was very interested in space when I was younger. I visited a lot of National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) facilities, and I live near the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL)," says Yin, adding that she attended Sally Ride Science Camps, as well as the U.S. Space and Rocket Center's Space Camp in Huntsville, Alabama – "it was a week of training and at the end I got to pilot a mock space shuttle mission!"

Her travels have also immersed her in the scenic beauty of nature. Yin has visited over 40 national parks in the U.S. and Canada, and participated in their Junior Ranger programs to become an advocate of nature conservation and preservation. For two summers, she traveled along Icefields Parkway winding through Banff and Jasper National Parks in Canada, walked on the glaciers at Columbia Icefield and hiked along iconic Lake Louise and Moraine Lake. Additionally, during a five-week excursion in Alaska, she boarded the Alaska Marine Highway System ferries to venture up the Inside Passage from Ketchikan to Skagway. Beyond that, a road trip along Haines, Alaska and Richardson Highways took her across the picturesque terrain of Western Canada and Eastern Alaska to Riverboat Discovery in Fairbanks, where she was captured on camera by a Google Maps car. From Fairbanks, she joined a tour van to journey up Dalton Highway. After crossing the Arctic Circle, she reached Prudhoe Bay to touch the frigid waters of the Arctic Ocean, and flew back down to Fairbanks on a bush plane. Yin recalls, "I soared above the untamed wilderness in awe, watching the Trans-Alaska Pipeline and Yukon River zigzag below. Alaska infused a striking sense of freedom and raw adventure within me."

It didn't take the trip to Alaska to make Yin adventurous. She has explored as many activities as possible. The four-year scholar athlete competes on her high school's varsity golf team, and helped them secure a second place victory in the Marmonte League Championship tournament last season. As one might expect, Yin spends a fair amount of her spare time in the high school robotics room, as well, designing, building and programming for competition. As president of the Physics/Robotics Club for two years, she says, "We compete in the VEX Robotics Competition, so we're always working." Continuing this love for engineering and science as a three-year member of the Science Olympiad team, she is a seven-time medalist at invitational, regional and state competitions. Yin adds that these activities have sharpened her skills in teamwork, communication, problem solving and critical thinking.

Furthermore, as president of Math Club since her junior year and representative of Mu Alpha Theta Math Honor Society Chapter, Yin not only organized activities and contests for the two clubs, but also tutored students of all math levels. She was the only female student from her high school invited by the Mathematical Association of America to compete in the American Invitational Mathematics Examination (AIME) after being named to the AMC (American Mathematics Competition) 12 Honor Roll. Moreover, Yin organized senior activities to promote academic excellence as president of her high school's California Scholarship Federation Chapter for two years.

Piano is what Yin describes as her favorite unscientific activity, and she uses it as a creative outlet. Unlike other busy students who might take on music as a hobby, Yin excels, once playing at New York City's Carnegie Hall in the fifth grade after being named the first-degree laureate of the Alberti International Piano Competition. She says it would be hard to pick a favorite piece, however "I love anything composed by Bach and Chopin, particularly Bach's 'Chromatic Fantasy and Fugue in D Minor' and Chopin's 'Etude, Opus 10, No. 12,'" Yin notes.

This dedication to not only the arts, sports and other extracurricular activities, but also academics and leadership led the Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation to name Yin as one of its top two scholars for 2014. Her acceptance letter described Yin as an example of excellence as a young student leader, stating: "Cynthia has enrolled in the most rigorous curriculum at school, and pursues a myriad of academically challenging activities outside of the classroom. Beyond academics, she excels at piano, golf and service-related efforts. Her achievements in math and science are astounding, and we are certain she will make a name for herself in the STEM world." On top of this high honor, she was also named U.S. Presidential Scholar Semifinalist, National Merit Scholar, National AP Scholar and Ventura County Star Scholar. She also received the White House President's Education Award for Outstanding Academic Excellence from President Barack Obama.

The spotlight jitters don't bother her much, whether she is presenting a scientific poster, performing an etude or competing in golf or robotics: "I think everyone gets a bit of nerves before they perform, but when you have done an activity for long enough, you get used to it," Yin notes.

A Glimpse of the Future

"Even though a lot of my lab research has been in biology I am open to all the possibilities," says Yin, who plans to pursue degrees in engineering and science. "As an era of interdisciplinary innovation emerges, I aspire to develop cutting-edge technologies that will advance humanity and shape the future." She hopes that Stanford's proximity to Silicon Valley will yield an internship and offer an opportunity to work on next-generation technologies – possibly with biomedical applications. Additionally, with continued involvement in the SLAS community, she values the exposure and insights she gains through conference presentations and SLAS networking.

For whatever lies ahead, Yin is armed with the same tenacity that has helped her advance so far. She thinks it is important for students at all levels of education to set goals and priorities. "Students should never give up on what they set out to do. It's really satisfying to see the rewards of your dedication and hard work. It lays a foundation for the future," Yin says, encouraging young people to pursue their interests. "A lot of people have told me to pursue projects that I truly enjoy. If you really want to do something, then it won't be work to you. It will be something that you wake up anticipating every day."

July 28, 2014