Yang’s Research Interests

A person in a hat walking on a beach

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As a bioarchaeologist, I conduct lab-based ancient DNA research of past human-environment interactions with a strong focus on Indigenous community involvement.   

I hold a BSc in biology and a MSc and a PhD in bioanthropology with a research specialty in ancient DNA. Since 2000, I have been running a dedicated ancient DNA laboratory in the Department of Archaeology at SFU, working on a variety of projects involving the analysis of numerous archaeological human, faunal and floral remains.

Most of my ancient DNA research is interdisciplinary. The DNA lab is aligned toward the natural sciences; however, we also engage in research questions geared toward the social sciences. I strongly believe that integrating ancient DNA data with other lines of evidence, including traditional knowledge and oral history of Indigenous communities, is the right way to illustrate the dynamic processes of human-environment interactions. 

Concerns over DNA Data

DNA continues to be perceived as a powerful and silver-bullet-like solution to many complex questions. Nevertheless, I have constantly reminded myself (and my students) of the potential risk of misleading conclusions that DNA may produce. We should always be mindful to make informed decisions regarding the overuse and misuse of DNA data. DNA data is compelling and informative; however, we acknowledge that DNA-based archaeological insights could only emerge through careful and critical integration and consideration of other information and contexts.  

Teamwork and Collaboration

I employ a collaborative-based approach to advance our interdisciplinary research. We work both as a small lab group with my graduate students and as a big research team with all our collaborators and partners from outside the lab. We strive to be self-critical by always assigning a team member to independently repeat the labwork, as we know human errors and contamination can occur throughout laboratory analysis. We also wish to be open-minded within our big research team, hoping to bring different perspectives together to foster an academically rigorous and community-based team.

As a result, we have been working closely with our archaeology colleagues and Indigenous community partners to develop research projects and, through an interdisciplinary approach, integrate and interpret DNA data in appropriate cultural contexts. 

Working with My Graduate Students

I enjoy my daily interactions with my graduate students, feeling their excitement (and sometimes their frustrations), working with them to troubleshoot various issues in their lab work, and eventually seeing them emerge as critical and mature scholars. By the end, I hope my students become self-critical and open-minded. In the long run, I would like to see each of us be a good citizen of society with a critical mind, a kind heart, and two hard-working hands.

At the beginning of their study, I would work closely with each student to develop an individualized training and research plan that fits their research interests. I have had students with different undergraduate backgrounds (e.g., BSc in biology, BA in archeology/anthropology, or double-major in biology and archaeology); therefore, individualized training plans would allow them to develop their skills and realize their unique potential. We are all unique, and our paths should be unique as well.  

Research Technical Specifics

Besides individual application projects, my students and I have been focusing on developing effective and efficient methods for DNA extraction and for integrating DNA data with other lines of evidence. This includes DNA data analysis of archaeological remains by investigating DNA markers and developing new techniques for quick and reliable species, sex, or individual identifications of ancient human, animal, or plant remains. The ancient DNA-based archaeology would allow us to deconstruct archaeological questions and develop DNA-testable hypotheses in order to more efficiently address archaeological and anthropological questions. Ancient DNA techniques would also prove to be extremely helpful for the identification of human remains in forensic and historical cold cases.

Research Projects and Geographic Research Regions

Previous and ongoing projects involve DNA analysis of archaeological remains of salmon, herring, rockfish, whales, northern fur seals, turkeys, elk, deer, turtles, rabbits, sheep, goats, cattle, horses, water buffalo and among many others.

Our research is more question-oriented than region-specific, but the Pacific Northwest Coast of North America has become our main geographic research region over time. Most of our current and previous lab-based projects are community-engaged, focusing on studying traditional salmon fishery and other resource management of the Indigenous First Nations Peoples on the Northwest Coast of North America.

One such study is our collaboration with the Tsleil-Waututh First Nation (FN) on archaeological salmon remains. Through ancient DNA analysis of salmon remains, we discovered an irregular sex ratio of male and female, which the oral histories of the Tsleil-Waututh people on male selective strategies for sustainable fishery can explain. (Morin et al., 2021) – “These types of collaborations are the future of ecological studies,” as commented by  The Scientist. This research was also reported widely by the press, with 47 news stories. Regarding publicity, the research is ranked in the 99th percentile of the 434,249 tracked articles, according to the journal’s Altmetric data (March 27, 2024).

A map of the ocean

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