Discovering Science with Dr. Gong

Dr. Yiyang Gong is the Primary Investigator of the Gong Lab in the Biomedical Engineering Department at Duke. He has always had an interest in the growth and learning aspects of science and believes that applying science to address interesting problems through research is a big part of the field. He completed his undergraduate degree at Cal Tech and went to Stanford for graduate school and his postdoctoral fellowship. Dr. Gong majored in electrical engineering, which he finds useful as the biomedical engineering department here at Duke draws a lot from EE. In grad school, Dr. Gong focused on applying nanophotonics to record novel things in the brain by looking at how nanometer-scale objects interact with light. For his post-doc, Dr. Gong delved into protein engineering and was interested in light sensors that respond to neural activity. These sensors look more at action potentials rather than calcium transients, thus giving more precise temporal estimates of brain activity. Through his studies, Dr. Gong applied the quantitative skills he had, like math, statistics, and optical design, to something that can be solved with biology while advancing science along the way.

After his post-doc, Dr. Gong was excited to bring his research topics together to discover new phenomenon about the brain. By using both optics and protein concepts to develop and apply new optical tools that can look at the brain in more detail along certain dimensions, Dr. Gong was able to carry out new types of experiments that he would otherwise be unable to do.

Dr. Gong’s daily life includes guiding people in his lab with their experiments, teaching undergraduate and graduate courses, and writing applications and drafts of papers. Dr. Gong’s favorite part of his job is learning new things, both in teaching and in research. In the Bioelectricity and Optogenetic Tools courses he teaches, he finds that teaching a concept by giving new examples sometimes gives him a better understanding of the model and creates a new perspective with which to view an idea. In the lab, he finds that there are small opportunities to learn every day. By accomplishing a set of tasks, he is able to discover something about how to do an experiment, what techniques work, what doesn’t work, etc.

In terms of science in general, Dr. Gong believes that science is its own process and that although it is often unpredictable, things will come in time. While there isn’t anything major that he would change about doing science, he would like for science to be more exploratory and less monetary-based. Currently, a lot of what he does in the lab and thinks is true for science in general is that research is largely driven by business. In an ideal world, he would like for science to have less of a business environment and be more about discovery.

Some big-picture advice Dr. Gong would give to students and people trying to figure out their future is that you should do what excites you. It’s less about what you want to do, but more about the fulfillment you want to experience in a career and what kind of impact you want to make through your work. I plan on taking that advice with me as I start finding my way through this summer of research, the rest of my college years, and beyond.

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