Magazine article Diverse Issues in Higher Education

Computing for Cures: Yaohang Li

Magazine article Diverse Issues in Higher Education

Computing for Cures: Yaohang Li

Article excerpt


Title: Associate professor, computer science, North Carolina A&T State University

Education: Ph.D. and M.S., computer science, Florida State University; B.S., computer science and engineering, South China University of Technology

Age: 35

Career mentor: Michael Mascagni, Florida State University

What advice would you give newly minted Ph.D.s? "Work hard but be sure to enjoy life too!"

When Dr. Yaohang Li's parents steered him as a teenager toward a computing career, it didn't douse any of his passion for laboratory sciences. In fact, it sparked a career in which he has merged the two.

His interdisciplinary research includes computational biology. Li, who has taught full-time since 2003, uses supercomputing to try impacting biological processes, which can result in breakthroughs in bio-energy development and the drug-design industry. The latter gives other scientists more tools to potentially fight disease.

Li has delved into protein-structure prediction and function, among other things. Proteins are essential, naturally occurring parts of all living organisms. But sometimes, humans can change a protein's structure in ways that make it more likely to bond with new disease-fighting drugs, for instance.

Li inputs protein-sequence data into computers and simulates a series of physical and chemical conditions. He analyzes the resulting protein model in order to better understand the biological processes.

Ideally, his research can be used to develop new protein-modeling programs. Computational approaches can be more efficient and less expensive than biologists, chemists and others experimenting in lab settings, Li says. "Sometimes we can do in one day by computer what might require a couple of years in a lab. It feels good knowing I might make a contribution to human health."

Still, answers don't often come quickly by computer either. Because much remains unknown about the nanoscale interactions between proteins and other elements, even computational biology can sometimes require years of research in order to reach a set of conclusions, says Li.

A current project of Li's involves investigating computational approaches that can lead to the prediction of high-resolution protein structures with a level of accuracy and reliability not currently attainable. …

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