Undergraduate Profile: Jennifer Miao (YC ’22)

Yale senior Jennifer Miao (YC ’22) was recently awarded the Gates Cambridge Scholarship, a prestigious fellowship that fully supports Miao’s pursuit of a Ph.D. at the Laboratory of Molecular Biology at Cambridge (LMB). At Yale, Miao is a member of the Trumbull community, enjoys leading Yale’s running club as the captain, and is currently working at the Mariappan Lab on Yale’s West Campus.

Despite Miao’s incredible dedication to her scientific pursuits, she has not sacrificed her passion for the outdoors. Miao runs every morning despite long hours at the lab. When asked how she juggles her many commitments, she explained that she does not see her daily runs as a burden. “It really helps with balancing the stresses of lab, schoolwork, and just college life. It also helps to sort of get new ideas and just get away from work and come back to it with a sort of renewed vigor,” Miao said.

Miao’s scientific journey started when she was a high school student working in a lab at UCLA under Associate Professor Jose Rodriguez. She used X-ray crystallography to structurally elucidate the core of an infectious prion fibril which has been implicated in many neurodegenerative diseases. This work ultimately culminated in a paper detailing a new approach to resolving protein structures.

Miao explained that a huge problem in structural biology today is the loss of critical information from the diffraction pattern returned by X-ray crystallography. This issue is, in part, avoided by using a related protein model in different stages to refine the existing model. However, Miao worked on adapting a new way to circumvent this issue by using fragments of a non-related protein model of the structure and obtaining an atomic structure through electron diffraction. Using this technique, Miao eventually published another paper displaying her findings on the core of prion fibrils and their relationship to a right or left orientation. Miao spoke at the prestigious 2019 CCP4 Study Weekend at Nottingham University, U.K. During her first trip to the U.K., she describes having enjoyable conversations with Phil Evans, a former group leader at the LMB, and Randy Read, a crystallographer at Cambridge University.

When it comes to influential scientists and research mentors, Miao has no shortage of inspiration. Miao’s first mentors in academia were Rodriguez and David Eisenberg of UCLA. Her unwavering focus as an undergraduate to obtain a Ph.D. comes from her love of the exploratory and collaborative manner with which Rodriguez encouraged his students to work. She fell in love with academia because her work with Rodriguez was curiosity-driven, as very few answers were known for the questions she was studying in his lab. “[I] enjoyed thinking about and planning my experiments every day,” Miao said.

While Miao was pretty set on pursuing a Ph.D., she was unsure whether it would be in the U.S. or the U.K. “What really influenced me to look into the U.K. was Dr. Rebecca Voorhees at Caltech because she also did a Ph.D. at the LMB and was very enthusiastic about it,” Miao said.

Miao will be pursuing structural biology research elucidating the mechanism of mitochondrial protein recruitment from the cytosol, which would be influential in mitochondrial metabolism research. Miao is most excited about the community that facilitates diverse scientific discourse at LMB. “The culture is quite different from the US. There is coffee time and tea time every day, where most of the labs gather in the canteen on the top floor of the building to talk about science. At the canteen, there is an abundance of expertise across so many disciplines,” Miao said. In parting Yale, she advises any prospective STEM student interested in academia to fearlessly pursue their research passions and find great mentorship among the approachable research faculty. “Don’t [be] afraid to […]ask for help or get advice from professors. They’re always willing to spend time to help undergraduates,” Miao said. She cited her experience working with renowned RNA biologist Joan Steitz. “People I thought would be completely unapproachable were actually very down-to-earth and easy to talk to,” Miao said.