Alumni Profiles Series: Yibin Kang
Dr. Yibin Kang is the Warner-Lambert/Parke-Davis Professor of Molecular Biology at Princeton University and an Associate Director of Rutgers Cancer Institute of New Jersey. In 2000, he completed his Ph.D. study with Dr. Bryan Cullen at Duke and became a postdoctoral fellow with Dr. Joan Massagué at the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center. Dr. Kang began his faculty career as an Assistant Professor at Princeton University in 2004. His lab studies the molecular mechanisms of breast cancer metastasis, and he has published over 150 articles in leading scientific journals including Science, Cancer Cell, and Nature Medicine. Dr. Kang has received the Vilcek Prize for Creative Promise in Biomedical Science and the AACR Award for Outstanding Achievements in Cancer Research, and was selected as a Komen Scholar and an American Cancer Society Research Professor, amongst many other accolades. He was inducted into the inaugural class of the Duke Graduate School’s Few-Glasson Alumni Society in 2016.
HOW DID YOU DECIDE TO BECOME A PROFESSOR?
Like many graduate students who are pondering their career choices when finishing the Ph.D. training, I was uncertain what career path I should choose. Luckily, my mentor and my thesis committee members (Drs. Sally Kornbluth, Joseph Heitman, Robin Wharton, and Mariano Garcia-Blanco) were very supportive, and they strongly encouraged me to pursue a path in academia. I enjoy the freedom to explore the research directions that interest me the most, mentoring my students and teaching, and I think my personality is a good fit for being a professor. Often times your mentor sees what's in you to make you go far in a certain career path even when you are uncertain, and it's wise to listen to their advice.
HAVE YOU EVER TRIED ANY JOBS OUTSIDE ACADEMIA?
I applied for a summer internship at a biotech company in the Research Triangle area before I finished my Ph.D. During my postdoc years, I also went to a job fair with a friend and submitted my resume, and was interviewed in a couple of biotech companies. I eventually declined those offers but the interview process was helpful for me to gain some insights into the different working styles between industry and academia. There is no one size fits all, different career paths fit people with different talents, personality, family situation, and career goals. So I think getting some experiences in different fields can help a student to think more deeply about who they are and what they are good at, and make the best career choices. I suggest students take advantage of the opportunities available to experience different jobs. I have a student who worked in a big pharma company for a few months and then decided to return to the academic track, and that experience was very helpful for him to focus his research effort in immuno-oncology in his independent lab in the university. Another student stayed in my group as a postdoc after finishing his Ph.D. and utilized Princeton's entrepreneurship program to launch his biotech start-up. There are more abundant opportunities like these nowadays for young people to explore different career tracks before making up their minds.
DO YOU HAVE ANY ADVICE FOR CURRENT STUDENTS INTERESTED IN AN ACADEMIC CAREER?
My first advice for current students is to trust your advisor’s insight and seek their advice when you are not sure about your career choice. Because your advisors have more experience in academia and have been working with students who took on different career paths, they have more insight as to whether you are a good fit for a particular profession. They could help you realize your strengths and weakness, and also help connect you with the right people for more career advice.
I also want students to know that a lot of learning is done informally during graduate school and postdoc. Many students might think that learning means going into the classroom, workshops, and conferences and listening to lectures; however, there is a lot you can learn under informal circumstances. For example, students can learn some management and communication skills by observing people who are successful in doing such things, including their mentors, senior lab members, and even people who are not in their same field. I learned how to build a healthy and productive culture in the lab by observing how Coach K coaches the Duke men’s basketball team and reading his book about leadership. I also learned how to give great lectures by watching Steve Jobs' speeches on YouTube. Being a P.I. requires many soft skills, such as collaborating with people with different personalities, building a friendly and trusting environment in the lab, recruiting and training new students/researchers, tailoring presentations to different audiences, grantsmanship and building a collegial relationship with administrators, editors, and office support staff, etc. None of these skills are taught in the classroom but they are very important for success. These skills can be gradually learned by observing good and/or bad examples in your life and work.
One last thing I want to point out is, no one is fully ready and good at everything when first becoming a P.I. Learning and improving doesn't stop when you take the first independent position. So don't underestimate yourself when you feel academic careers are so daunting and overwhelming. You will continue to learn and become better, and before you know it, you will become so good at handling those difficult tasks at work.
WHAT ADVICE CAN YOU OFFER TO STUDENTS FACING THE STRESS OF PUBLISHING AND FINDING A JOB WHILE EXPERIMENTS ARE NOT GOING AS EXPECTED?
I think working in academia is similar to running a marathon. One needs to work at a comfortable pace, instead of trying to sprint to the finish line and end up burning out in the middle of the race. Focusing on the result will often cause anxiety because research work cannot typically be done in a short time or a predictable manner. Many students might find the transition between undergraduate study and graduate study hard because when you’re an undergraduate, studying and exam results are relatively predictable. When doing research, you are tackling a completely unknown question. Failed experiments and invalid hypothesis is a routine part of the life of a researcher. For a graduate student, it is not uncommon to feel like no matter how much effort you put in, you are not making progress in moving forward. The stress and anxiety come from such unpredictable nature of scientific research, but it is also important to keep in mind that the law of nature is always there to be discovered, and this is something that is not going to change. Rather than worrying about publishing the paper, getting a job offer, or later on, getting tenured, it is better to focus on the fundamentals of becoming a good scientist. Learn how to identify a good scientific question to focus on, how to perform experiments with appropriate controls so that you can trouble-shoot when the experiment doesn't go as an experiment, how to use a different approach to attack a question from different angles, and how to build collaboration to enlist help from other experts. No matter what career stage you are in, if you focus on doing science right, good things will always follow naturally.
WHAT IS YOUR FAVORITE MEMORY FROM YOUR TIME AT DUKE?
I camped out for the Duke Basketball season tickets twice and got lucky both times. I went to almost all home games during those two years, often after a packed day in the lab, and before going back to finish the work. Duke's win over Carolina from 15 points down in Wojo's senior night in 1997 was the most amazing game I ever attended--the entire gym was wet with sweat and I lost my voice the next day.
Shuyang Jin, Neurobiology
Shuyang Jin is a Ph.D. student in the department of Neurobiology. She studies how the cerebellum works during motor control and motor learning. Before starting her graduate studies at Duke, she graduated from University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign with an Undergraduate Student Research Award as a B.S. in Integrative Biology with a minor in Chemistry. She is currently serving as a Co-representative of the Neurobiology Graduate and Professional Student Council (GPSC). She is interested in connecting people in health care and consulting companies.