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An Interview with 2014 Research Expo Winner Ya-San Yeh

Updated May 14 with videos of Research Expo faculty talks (scroll to the bottom of the story)

San Diego, Calif., May 12, 2014 – Ya-San Yeh, a University of California, San Diego Jacobs School of Engineering graduate student won the grand prize at Research Expo 2014 on April 17 for her research on silica nanoparticles for cancer treatment. Yeh received the Rudee Outstanding Poster Award as well as the best departmental poster in bioengineering.  We caught up with Yeh after the big win to talk about her research and what it is like to work on a problem as big as cancer.

The silica nanoparticle presented by Yeh is a flexible platform that can be used to house a variety of enzyme treatments for cancer or other diseases by hiding the enzymes, which are typically taken from foreign organisms such as E. coli, away from the human immune system. In her poster presentation at Research Expo, Yeh focused on the enzyme L-asparaginase from E.Coli, which is already FDA-approved for the treatment of acute lymphoblastic leukemia, a form of cancer that most commonly affects children. The enzyme reacts with amino acids that are an essential nutrient for cancer cells, depleting the amino acid and essentially starving the cancer cell.  By helping the foreign enzyme evade the body’s immune system, the nanoparticles promise to improve the effectiveness of this treatment. The nanoparticle acts like a filter in the bloodstream. Its pores are large enough to capture amino acids, but too small for the enzymes to escape.

Noting that the effort represents the work of a large research group with diverse scientific, engineering and clinical perspectives, Yeh thanked her advisor, Sadik Esener, and UC San Diego alumnus Inanc Ortac for their mentorship. Esener is a professor in the departments of Electrical and Computer Engineering and NanoEngineering. Yeh credited the hard work of her peers for the team’s accomplishments so far. She said working on the problem of cancer is a “humbling” experience. 

“When I first started in the lab, I thought, ‘Oh, Cancer, we’re going to find a cure for it.’ As you dig deeper and deeper into this disease, it’s so complex and so difficult. It’s not one disease. It’s feels like multiple diseases because they all behave differently,” said Yeh. “I feel more grounded now knowing that I know so little and that there is so much more to know.”

But Yeh isn’t letting the challenge dull her passion or energy. Asked what advice she would give undergraduate students or younger students debating what to study, Yeh simply said, “Dream big. Just go for it and don’t let anyone tell you that it won’t be possible.”

Videos of Research Expo faculty talks below:

NanoEngineering Professor Joseph Wang:

Structural Engineering Professor Hyonny Kim:

Electrical Engineering Professor Truong Nguyen:

Computer Science Professor Rajesh Gupta:

Bioengineering Professor Karen Christman:

Mechanical Engineering Professor Thomas Bewley:

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