Starting with strawberry DNA, Liu developed strong taste for research

By Deborah Wormser / June 2011

Ying Liu’s interest in science began with her own experiments as a young girl growing up in China; in one, she fondly remembers extracting DNA from strawberries.

“I remember how the DNA began to form cotton-like fibers and spool onto the stirring rod,” said Ms. Liu, who will defend her dissertation in biological chemistry.

The UT Southwestern Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences faculty recently named Ms. Liu recipient of the 2011 Nominata Award, the highest honor the graduate school bestows on a student.

Ying Liu

“She is a very gifted and hard-working student, a pleasure to have around. She is also an independent thinker. You can give her an idea and she can just take it and run with it,” said her mentor Dr. Qinghua Liu associate professor of biochemistry. The two researchers are unrelated, although they share a Star Wars connection.

Dr. Liu, a W.A. “Tex” Moncrief Jr. Scholar in Medical Research, previously discovered a protein he named R2D2, after the famous robot in the movies. Ms. Liu is lead author of a 2009 Science article that details her discovery of a protein she named C3PO, after another Star Wars robot.

The Science article and subsequent studies, most recently one reported in the May issue of Nature Structural & Molecular Biology, indicate that C3PO plays a key role in the activation of RNA-induced silencing complex (RISC). RISC, the catalytic engine of RNA interference (RNAi), keeps genes from expressing proteins and is important in numerous biological and disease processes, including cancer.

Ms. Liu said she chose UT Southwestern because of its reputation in China for a good scientific environment and because of the fame of Dr. Xiaodong Wang, member of the National Academy of Sciences and former professor of biochemistry.

She said the UT Southwestern community made her feel welcome as soon as she arrived in 2006. The support continued through her selection for the Nominata, when she received more congratulatory messages than she could acknowledge individually. “I wish to express my gratitude to them for sending all their congratulations emails to me,” she said.

Ms. Liu holds a Sara and Frank McKnight Student Fellowship, named in honor of the parents of Dr. Steven McKnight, chairman of biochemistry. Her other honors include the Chinese government award for outstanding student studying abroad and the Stanford Biochemistry Founders’ Award, a national award for female researchers.

She plans to do postdoctoral research in the laboratory of Dr. Gary Ruvkun, an NAS member who is at Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School.

The Nominata Award recognizes academic excellence and research achievement at UT Southwestern. The prize consists of a $2,000 award and the honor of presenting the final seminar of the University Lecture Series for the academic year. Ms. Liu’s talk was titled “Star Wars Saga Continues: Novel Regulators of RISC Functions."

Others honored by the graduate school include Juan Mendoza of the molecular biophysics graduate program and Anita Autry of the neuroscience graduate program, who were awarded Dean’s Discretionary Awards for their outstanding oral presentations during the Nominata Award interview session.