While studying for her Master’s degree at one of the top chemistry schools in China, Xiamen University, Yi Jin had a unique opportunity at an international conference to meet two professors from the University of Sheffield – a meeting that changed the course of her career.
“When Jon Waltho and Mike Blackburn met me, they were looking for somebody with a chemistry background to move into enzymology,” says Yi. “As a chemistry student, I was synthesising a series of phosphonate compounds to mimic the transition state analogues for some enzymes, so they asked if I’d like to apply for a full studentship at the University of Sheffield.
“I applied for the British Council funded overseas research scholarship and was accepted to study molecular biology and biotechnology, with NMR as the major technique. Really it was that experience that led me from chemistry into enzymology and molecular biology.
“Later on, in York, I gained further training on structural biology with FRS Gideon Davies which expanded my vision, so now I’m working on chemical biology and combining my past training with new techniques through collaborations.”
Yi is currently a group leader at Cardiff University, investigating enzymes involved in antibiotic resistance and human diseases. “I’m not limiting my research by focusing on a specific area – I’m enjoying looking at what problems need solving and getting involved in that. But my expertise is in carbohydrate chemistry, glycobiology and enzyme catalysis of phosphate group transfer, which are closely related to my training background from my PhD and postdoc. And now I have my own research group!”
Spending most of her time training and supervising her research group, Yi enjoys the challenging nature of her work, finding it very rewarding.
Every day is different. You need to be up to date with new research development because everything advances so quickly, especially in my field. Currently I’m investigating the post-translational modification on human signalling proteins, like small G proteins and kinases. It’s very exciting, and I’ve started to gain more insights into it. Because my research is on human diseases and antibiotic resistance, another branch of research I’m focusing on is the molecular mechanisms of the most prevalent antibiotic resistance causing enzymes such as OXA-48.
In 2019 Yi received the Wellcome Trust Sir Henry Dale Fellowship for her research. “It’s a very prestigious fellowship that provides generous funding, which will help me to launch the next stage of my career. As part of my fellowship, I’m going to be further investigating one aspect of bacterial persistence, which is the phenomenon that bacteria develop during antibiotic treatment. I am curious about its association to sulfoglycolysis. I honestly just love all my projects!”
Yi first joined the Royal Society of Chemistry in 2007, encouraged by her then PhD supervisor, Mike Blackburn. “He is an FRSC and told me that I should be part of the society if I wanted to get connected when I came to the UK. For me, the most immediate benefit was that I could save on registration fees for RSC meetings. So I decided to join, and it really helped that the student subscription was very cheap.
“At the beginning, the RSC monthly magazine Chemistry World helped me to improve my English and keep up to date with chemistry-related policies and events in the UK and around the world. There were also some articles related to my field which really helped as reading material for me as a chemistry student. In 2015, I was selected and sponsored by the RSC to attend the IUPAC General Assembly and World Chemistry Congress in Busan as a Young Observer. Now I use my membership for other benefits – earlier this year I became a chartered chemist!”
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When the UK went into lockdown in March and she couldn’t work in the lab Yi decided to spend time completing her application to become a chartered chemist.
“It was something I wanted to do because my research deviated a little bit from ‘traditional’ chemistry when I moved into chemical biology. My PhD is in molecular biology and biotechnology, and so when people ask me about my research or specialities, they think I’m not a chemist. I have all these years of training and a degree in chemistry, and so I wanted something that would remind people of that.
“The whole process motivated me to think about everything I have achieved. Some of that is just your daily responsibilities and achievements, but you can use them as your attributes towards chartered chemist status. To me, that was rewarding and helpful in making you realise how you work so you can make improvements. It has helped me to think about how you use your chemistry knowledge to influence the world around you and generate impact on society.”
Yi has joined a range of interest groups, including carbohydrate chemistry, inorganic chemistry and chemical biology. She has attended many events and conferences where she is able to collaborate with other members and share knowledge, making for a fantastic networking experience.
When you go to meetings, you are with that group of people, listening to each other talk, getting a better understanding of each other’s research, as well as networking. I’ve met all sorts of people from peers to influential professors, and they have all been very supportive in my career development, including offering me advice on student supervision, manuscript submission and research grant applications.
“The best thing about events like this is that no matter which career stage you’re at, you’re going to meet somebody you can talk to and share your stories with who can help advise you on what to do next. It truly is a fantastic networking experience.”
As a new emerging investigator, Yi has recently been invited to publish in the RSC’s most-cited journal, ChemComm – an opportunity she is proud of.
“Being invited to submit to ChemComm is quite a privilege. It’s all the small things that the RSC do that make you feel supported. When I submit to an RSC journal, it makes me feel like I’m submitting to a home publisher that I’m familiar with. I really respect that.”
In addition to her research, Yi is involved in the recruiting of international students for Cardiff University, particularly those from Chinese universities. This has helped her to appreciate the role of the RSC as a global society, and the influence it holds worldwide.
“I’m also following the RSC’s Chinese channel on WeChat. They have regular updates, notes from editors, and advertise awards and nominations – they really reach out to everyone.
“In China, there isn’t such an international society for chemistry students to join. One thing that makes the RSC so globally influential is that it reaches out and penetrates into different countries’ scientific communities, and it’s great because anyone can join.”
“Being a member, you are associated with a reputable, world-leading chemistry society. And I tell all my students to become part of the community. With the RSC, you really do feel like you’re being supported, and not just by one person or scheme, but the whole society.
“Almost all the top scientists in my research field are either a Member or Fellow of the RSC, and you feel like you are one of them as you are part of the same society. And because of that support and sense of belonging, I feel like the RSC has seen me growing as a chemical scientist over the years.”