Oct. 13, 2020

Love of science sparks critical discovery

Dr. Jinjing Yao, PhD, key part of world-renowned lab

Dr. Jinjing Yao, PhD, is a research associate studying the endoplasmic reticulum (ER) calcium release channels in both the heart and brain, especially in the neurons, in Dr. Wayne Chen’s lab. Technological limitations make it a challenge to study how the ER regulates the release of calcium. Growing evidence shows that ER is an important consideration in the development of certain diseases, like Alzheimer’s disease.

Yao is the first author on an article published recently in Cell Reports that detailed the lab’s discovery about how to prevent and reverse severe Alzheimer’s Disease (AD)-related deficits, such as memory impairment.  The study demonstrated that limiting the open time of one of the ER calcium release channels, the Type 2 Ryanodine Receptor (RyR2), in mice with Alzheimer’s was a key to tackling Alzheimer’s symptoms.

Yao is thrilled about this finding. He notes it was made possible by having access to cutting-edge equipment including the multi-photon microscope recently purchased thanks to community donations to the Libin Cardiovascular Institute.

“This discovery really gives the hundreds of thousands of Alzheimer’s Disease patients and their families a hope,” he says. “I am thrilled to be part of this exciting research.”

His mentor, Dr. Wayne Chen, PhD, a member of the Libin Cardiovascular Institute, says Yao’s contributions to this study were tremendous.  

“Dr. Yao is a key component of our lab,” says Chen. “Without him, this work could not have been accomplished. I am very proud of his efforts.”

Early Beginnings

Yao was born and raised in Huzhou, a small town in eastern China. His interest in medicine and biology comes honestly: his mom is a traditional Chinese medicine physician and his father, a high school math teacher.

Yao remembers borrowing equipment from his father’s colleagues to do simple experiments, like trying to find out whether light and temperature can affect the germination of rice seeds and how to make homemade beer. That love of science blossomed over the years, and Yao earned his PhD majoring in biophysics at Fudan University, in Shanghai, China in 2014.

After completing his degree, Yao began working with researchers in Shanghai, helping design experiments and analyze data. He enjoyed the work but longed to pursue more training.

His heart’s desire came true when his mentor told him that world-renowned researcher Chen, a Professor in the Cumming School of Medicine (CSM), was looking for postdoctoral fellows to join his lab.

Yao jumped on the chance to further develop his scientific interest and moved to Calgary in 2015, where he began a five-year postdoctoral stint before being hired as a research associate. 

Today, Yao continues to study the calcium release channels in the heart and brain while working towards his goal of becoming an independent researcher with a focus on understanding how the body regulates calcium in the heart and brain.

His wife, also a research associate at the CSM, and five-year-old son are never far from his mind. As a scientist, he is particularly fascinated by his son’s development. In fact, he attributes his growing interest in neuroscience, in part, to watching his son learn.