This month’s Graduate Student Spotlight highlights Yunzi Gou. Yunzi is a graduate student in the Riley Lab, studying the development of neurons of the stato-acoustic ganglion (SAG) in zebrafish.
I was born in Xi’an, a city famous for its rich culture and history, located in central China. My family later moved to Beijing, the capital of China, when I was in elementary school. I loved animals growing up and I had many different pets even though we were living in a big city. My interest in biology was rooted in my deep respect for my dad, a M.D. and Ph.D. trained pediatrician, who seemed to know it all and never tired of my endless questions when I was a kid. When asked in the elementary school what are we wanted to be when we grew up, I remember saying teacher or scientist. I followed my childhood interests and went to Capital Normal University for my undergraduate degree. During my undergraduate, I earned the opportunity and the German Academic Exchange Service scholarship to do a study abroad at the University of Tübingen, Germany. I spent 10 months there and did my undergraduate thesis research in Dr. Georg Felix’s lab: purifying and characterizing microbe-associated molecular patterns that elicit plant immunity. After I graduated with a B.S. in Bioscience, I wanted to pursue my Ph.D. in a program that is diverse so that I would have the opportunity to try different directions, and ultimately decided to come to Texas A&M University.
What inspired you to join Dr. Riley’s lab?
Definitely the cool science! I did not have prior experience in developmental biology. My undergraduate research experiences were in biochemistry labs. When I learned about the research that was going on in Dr. Riley’s lab, (e.g. how a group of progenitor cells cooperate to form the inner ear, how multiple signaling pathways are interacting during this process), it was a new set of questions and new way of thinking about biology for me, so it was challenging and exciting. Also, did you know that zebrafish have an inner ear and that they can regenerate their hair cells, an ability that’s lost in humans? Isn’t that cool? And Dr. Riley and every lab member was super nice and welcoming when I rotated, which was a big plus.
What projects are you currently working on?
I’m working on two projects a recently graduated student, Dr. Husniye Kantarci, started. In an ENU mutagenesis screen, she identified two mutants, sagd1 and sagd2, that showed distinct phenotypes in the development of neurons of the stato-acoustic ganglion (SAG), which innervate the inner ear. Analysis of sagd1 uncovered a novel connection between glycolysis and Fgf signaling, which is important for the development of SAG neurons. I’m working on completing this analysis and evaluating a list of candidate genes to identify the gene that is disrupted in sagd2 mutants.
What motivates you to do your best?
I’m motivated by a deep curiosity about scientific questions, trying to figure out how things work, and the joy of discovering something new and unexpected. Also, it is built in my personality that if I decide to do something, I will take it seriously and give my best.
Describe your most rewarding academic experience.
“Most” is hard to pick. I’ve had many rewarding experiences so far. One is presenting my research after the hard work, at the international conference on zebrafish development and genetics, and at the Student-Postdoc Research Conference (SPRC), where I won the “Best Oral Presentation” title. It’s rewarding to know that people understand my research and to hear them ask good questions. I still get nervous during presentations, but I try my best to make my talk comprehensible to my audience, practice to make it flow well, and make my nervousness less noticeable. Dr. Riley has been a tremendous help and gives me good feedback to help me improve. I’m very thankful to him and other lab mates who spent their time helping me practice my talks.
Another one is being the teaching assistant for BIOL 344 Embryology. Preparing and teaching the lab helped me lay a good foundation in general embryology and developmental biology when I first joined the lab. I’ve had many bright and enthusiastic students in the past few years. It’s rewarding to know they enjoyed the class and learned the material. One student told me that his friend took the course a few years ago and still remembered this class and highly recommended it. It made me so happy to read my student evaluations and get such positive affirmation. Here are examples of what a few students wrote: “Yunzi was very passionate about teaching.” “I could tell that she enjoyed her work.” “She is the best lab instructor I have had at Texas A&M.”
What advice would you give to new/incoming graduate students?
Have an open-mind and don’t be afraid to try new fields that you might not be familiar with. It’s awesome to have a strong research interests in a particular field, but you might be pleasantly surprised when you try new things.
Tell us about your hobbies and interests outside of the lab.
I like hiking, climbing and trying different exercises. I enjoy trying and learning new things. Recently it’s been ballet. I also enjoy spending some time with friends, watching movies, playing card games and travelling to new places.
What are your long-term goals?
I want to contribute to human knowledge. I enjoy doing research, so I plan to gain more experience though post-doctoral work and pursue a career in academia.
My fitness goal is to be more physically active and flexible.