Medical doctor adds doctorate to her list of achievements

October 07, 2004, vol. 31, no. 3
By Carol Thorbes

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Soft spoken and a little shy, Yanli Fan does not appear to be much of a challenge seeker. But she must be to have accomplished so much in so little time.

The Beijing-born Simon Fraser University student will receive her doctorate in molecular biology and biochemistry this fall.

The 32-year-old and her husband are then off to Boston, Massachusetts, where she will take up a postdoctoral fellowship at Harvard University's school of medicine. Fan will delve further into her newfound world of human genetics, using the mouse as a model.

Originally trained as a medical doctor, Fan, along with her husband, came to Vancouver four years ago, after she finished her residency at Beijing's Capital University of Medical Sciences.

“I wanted to know more about what made people sick rather than just treat them,” she says. “But there wasn't the time to study people as a doctor.”

Fan faced adjusting to a new culture and mastering English to be able to communicate easily about human genetics and bioinformatics, a new field that mines and analyses computer databases to investigate biological questions, especially related to genetics.

Fan used her medical knowledge and training in bioinformatics at SFU to genetically characterize 26 families with Bardet-Biedl syndrome (BBS) in Newfoundland.

Fan's comparison of genetic mutations in their DNA with a computerized database of normal genes led her and other scientists to identify BBS3 - an eighth gene now known to cause BBS.

The multisystemic hereditary disorder afflicts one in 160,000 people worldwide. Its traits are linked to more common diseases, such as obesity, kidney disease and blindness.

Fan is leaving SFU with more than her doctorate under her belt. She is the first author on three papers published in scientific journals: the International Journal of Obesity (May 2004) published her article on BBS1 and obesity; Nature Genetics (August 2004) published the article on the new BBS gene that she helped identify; Human Genetics will publish her landmark analysis of hereditary disease in Newfoundland later this year.

Fan also recently acquired her Canadian citizenship.

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