Wang wins Nominata

Graduate student's work identified molecular target of plexin receptors

By Jeff Carlton

Yuxiao Wang, a molecular biophysics doctoral student in the UT Southwestern Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences, is the recipient of the 2013 Nominata Award.

Yuxiao Wang
Yuxiao Wang

Mr. Wang was recognized for his “demonstrated academic excellence and an exceptional level of research achievement,” according to the Committee on Graduate School Awards.

Dr. Xuewu Zhang, Assistant Professor of Pharmacology and Biochemistry, acknowledges he may have been spoiled working alongside Mr. Wang.

“I’ve been extremely lucky,” Dr. Zhang said. “He is the first student I’ve had working in my laboratory, and he happens to be one of the best.”

The Nominata Award is the highest honor bestowed by the Graduate School. Its leaders created the award to stimulate academic excellence and research achievement among advanced graduate students.

At a June 5 awards presentation, Mr. Wang delivered a lecture, titled “Signaling and Regulation of Plexin: A Tale of Two Dimers and Two Small GTPases.” The Nominata Award included a $1,000 prize and a $100 gift certificate to Majors Books.

The committee also recognized Dr. Joshua Chang of the Neuroscience Graduate Program, awarding him a Dean’s Discretionary Award for his outstanding research and oral presentation during the Nominata Award interview session. Dr. Chang earned his Ph.D. at UT Southwestern in January.

Working under Dr. Zhang, Mr. Wang focused his research on a group of receptors called plexins, which act as antennae on the surface of neurons. Plexin receptors sense the environment around them and help neurons navigate their growing nerve fibers inside the human body. When plexin receptors go awry, neurological disorders and cancers can follow.

Mr. Wang’s contribution to the understanding of plexin receptors came when he helped identify the molecular target within cells that plexins act upon – a molecule called Rap.

“Other molecules had been identified as the target for plexins, but those had been called into question. Yuxiao identified the correct one,” Dr. Zhang said. “His work tossed aside the old paradigm and established a new paradigm.”

Mr. Wang’s second breakthrough in plexin receptor signaling came when he and Dr. Zhang discovered the mechanism that activates plexins – in effect, how the receptors turn on and off.

“I am interested in the fundamental mechanisms underlying cellular functions,” Mr. Wang said. “To really understand these things, you need strong training in structural biology and biochemistry – and UT Southwestern Medical Center is one of the strongest.”

UT Southwestern’s expertise in these fields is what drew Mr. Wang from China to Dallas for his doctorate. He plans to pursue postdoctoral training elsewhere, he said, to get exposure to different academic environments and scientific philosophies.

Given the right opportunity, Dr. Zhang said, his first student “has the potential to become a leader in science.”

“Winning the Nominata Award is a great honor,” Mr. Wang said. “I know there were many excellent candidates with strong academic and research backgrounds. I feel very fortunate, lucky, and surprised to have won.”


Dr. Zhang is a Virginia Murchison Linthicum Scholar in Medical Research.