She's No. 1

She’s No. 1

Yan Ren first alumna of UF Genetics and Genomics Graduate Program

By John Pastor

Standing with UF Genetics Institute Director Dr. Kenneth Berns (center) and researcher Sihong Song (right), Yan Ren opens a graduation gift at a celebration held in her honor./Photo by Jesse S. Jones

When Yan Ren arrived from China in 2006 to become a member of the first class of the UF Genetics and Genomics Graduate Program, she knew she was in the right place.

She loved the friendly people and the natural surroundings of north central Florida, especially the protected wilderness areas. Growing up, Ren helped her father take care of plants and small animals in her family’s garden — experiences that influenced her to become a biologist. By the time she was in high school, she had been studying English and knew she wanted to go to college to study the life sciences.

She was a little surprised to find that when she arrived in Gainesville for graduate school, she could understand what other people were saying, but they seemed to have a harder time understanding her.

It didn’t matter. Ren set to work.

A new student in the genetics doctoral program can choose rotations with faculty members from 17 departments within the colleges of Agriculture and Life Sciences, Engineering, Liberal Arts and Sciences, Medicine and Pharmacy.

The idea is that good geneticists are integrative, incorporating many different subfields of genetics into their work, according to Wilfred Vermerris, Ph.D., the graduate program director and an associate professor of agronomy at IFAS.

Ren embodied that principle, doing three rotations in three different colleges before choosing her adviser: Jeffrey Hughes, Pharm.D., Ph.D., in the College of Pharmacy’s department of pharmaceutics.

That relationship led her to the College of Medicine’s department of pharmacology and therapeutics, where she pursued Alzheimer’s disease studies with Edwin Meyer, Ph.D., an authority in the field of neuroprotection, and Michael King, Ph.D., who studies gene therapy for neurological disorders.

Eventually, Ren finished her graduate education in the lab of Sihong Song, Ph.D., an associate professor in the department of pharmaceutics. On April 29, with a 4.0 GPA, she became the first student to graduate with a genetics/genomics doctoral degree.

“I think she is a very brilliant student, there is no question,” Song said. “But she is also very good at working across different subjects, and working with a variety of people across two colleges. That has contributed to her scientific success.”

Fellow students and faculty members gathered under the giant double helix in the atrium of the Cancer & Genetics Research Complex to congratulate Ren for becoming “the first alumna,” said Kenneth Berns, M.D., Ph.D., director of the UF Genetics Institute.

“She is a wonderful example that our brand new program is changing the way we educate students,” Berns said. “Our success depends on training young researchers across disciplines, and we are proudly watching as our students complete the program.”

Marta Wayne, Ph.D., the graduate program’s founding director and an associate professor in the department of biology, said, “The graduate program grew from an incredibly thick document created through the hard work of many faculty members to this — a real-life human graduate. This is a good day for all of us.”

As for Ren, she plans to continue doing postdoctoral studies at UF. She lives in Gainesville with her husband.

“We met at our college in China. He studies biology, too,” she said. “I probably could not have gotten through my Ph.D. study without his love and support.”