Living for the Love of Discovery— a Sit-Down with Dr. Henry Yin

This week, I had the opportunity to sit down with the principal investigator of my lab, Associate Professor Dr. Henry Yin of the Duke Department of Psychology and Neuroscience. I’d like to personally thank him for taking the time to talk to me about his experiences in science, research, and life in general, as well as for welcoming me into his lab. It’s through the generosity of Dr. Yin that I’m able to work in a lab and train as a young scientist, and I can’t express how grateful I am for the opportunity he’s given me this summer.

This interview, in particular, allowed me to pick the brain of an adult scientist— someone who knows what it takes to do well in the field and get results. As a nineteen-year-old, I consider myself extremely fortunate to have the opportunity to receive mentorship from Dr. Yin, and I hope that this as myself and this relationship continue to develop, I will improve as a scientist and better understand the ins and outs of academic research in neuroscience.

Q: What were your beginnings in science? Where did you study and where have you worked as you built your career?

A: Dr. Yin attended Washington University of St. Louis for his undergraduate studies. While working in a molecular lab during the summer prior to his junior year, he started reading neuroscience books, including those by Oliver Sacks. A lot of these books were about “big ideas” in neuroscience like language and human memory, which really sparked his interest in the field. After getting interested in neuroscience, he went to graduate school at UCLA expecting to work with human language and memory, but ended up studying rodents and the neural substrates of actions.

He considers himself lucky in that his early projects had moderate success, which further interested him in a career in science, while some of his peers had difficulty getting results and were thus somewhat alienated from research. He described this using an analogy to golf, saying that people who are naturally talented or have a great coach early on tend to continue with it while others who are less successful tend to give up more easily. After completing his graduate degree, he completed a postdoc at the NIH, working on cellular and molecular plasticity, long-term potentiation, long-term depression, and synaptic plasticity. He says he’s worked on the basal ganglia for his entire career and feels fortunate to have done so.

Q: What’s been your most meaningful accomplishment in science thus far?

A: Dr. Yin is proud of the work he’s done at Duke. His work has led to increased understanding of the basal ganglia and he believes that his results have been meaningful. To him, it’s about the results, not the career trajectory or title.

Q: If you could change one thing about how science is done, what would it be?

A: Dr. Yin expressed displeasure with what’s known as “careerism”. He believes that science should be about the passion for understanding nature and getting results, but believes that often people view it too much as a career. “It’s a cool job. You get to travel and there’s not as much pressure as a corporate job.” It’s for this reason that he thinks that a lot of researchers focus more on the prestige, status, and money rather than the results of their research and love for discovery.

Q: If you could go back in time and speak to yourself as an undergraduate around the age of 19 or 20, what’s the number one piece of advice you would give yourself?

A: Dr. Yin expressed the importance of seeking advice from people you really admire. He said that “Students will be willing to spend 200+ hours studying orgo or something to get an A vs a B+, but they don’t think to put in time like that to seeking advice from other people. There are many interesting people on campus.” He believes that a great deal of knowledge can be acquired from others and students should fully take advantage of it.

My parents have always given me advice and often I’d respond with an “OK, mom, got it,” disregard the advice, and move on with my day, but in the past year, I’ve encountered so many situations in which something they said turned out to be the best advice possible. I’ve realized that maybe these people who’ve lived for 30 years longer than me, gone to college, and earned a living for themselves might actually know something about how to be successful.

That’s the type of mentality I’ve decided to bring into the lab because I believe that the magic of Duke lies in the people we meet here. Dr. Yin and the others in my lab know what neuroscience research entails because they’ve done it for years, and I get to come into the lab as a sponge and soak up as much of their wisdom as possible. I’m grateful to be here and receiving advice from people I admire like Dr. Yin is something that I’m learning to make a priority. Dr. Yin demonstrated to me that becoming a successful scientist requires a can-do attitude, persistence, communication, and, most importantly, a willingness to learn. With these traits in mind, I will continue to work hard in the lab and talk to those around me in order to best capitalize on my time here in the Yin Lab.

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