Meet our Community: Yi Fei Tao
A rising junior studying transcriptional activation in the Robert Lab @ McGill, with hopes of opening up her own lab one day!
Hi! I’m Yi Fei,
A second-year biochemistry student at McGill University! I’m currently working in the Robert Lab where I’m studying the Mediator complex and its role in transcriptional activation. I like dogs, cats, my friends, singing, making + eating food, curating Spotify playlists, and binging Netflix shows. Feel free to hit me up to nerd out about research or for cute pictures of my 10 foster cats!
🔬 Yi Fei in Bio
What research/projects are you currently doing?
I’ve been working at the Robert Lab since June 2020, and my project looks at the Mediator complex and its role in transcription. Mediator is an essential transcriptional co-activator that contacts transcription factors at distal enhancers and RNA polymerase II at the core promoter to help initiate transcription. Structurally, it is composed of 4 modules: Head, Middle, Tail, and Cdk8-Kinase module (CKM). The CKM is actually dynamically associated with the rest of the Mediator and antagonizes Mediator-RNA pol II binding, acting as a negative regulator of transcription. The mechanism regulating the dynamic Mediator-CKM interaction has not yet been characterized, and this is exactly what I’m working on in my project. One protein of interest for the project is Med13, a subunit of the CKM that anchors the CKM to the rest of the Mediator. Med13 has a very large intrinsically disordered region (IDR), which we think is important for regulating Mediator-CKM binding. I’ve therefore been generating and characterizing different mutants targeting this IDR, using techniques including CRISPR/Cas9 mutagenesis, molecular cloning, PCR, immunoblotting, immunoprecipitations, ChIP-seq and RNA-seq.
How do your academic/research/project involvements contribute towards your future plans?
I’ve always been super interested in gene expression, epigenetics, and cancer, so the research I’m doing at the Robert Lab is right up my alley. I’m planning on pursuing a career in academia, and it’s been really great to have the chance to experience what research is like as an undergrad. I’ve also had the chance to work on manuscripts for reviews and research papers, which has been a great experience in terms of building up my science communication skills. Aside from just mastering experimental techniques, my time in the lab has also given me a new appreciation for the importance of mentorship, collaboration, and critical thinking, fostering an innovative kind of mindset I hope to continue developing as I enter grad school.
Where did your passion for building and discovering come from?
I’ve always loved to learn how things work. One of my most cherished possessions when I was young was my toy microscope — I would use it to observe strands of my hair, dead bugs I found outside, and anything else I could get my hands on. My interest shifted towards molecular biology in high school, when I realized just how intricate and complex the molecular mechanisms going on inside our cells were. Being in a research lab has given me the chance to explore some of these mechanisms myself, providing a perfect outlet for my curiosity.
What do you value within academia / industry that you wish more people would consider?
Mentorship is often overlooked when people — especially new undergraduate students — are considering what labs to join. I myself didn’t realize just how important it was to have a good research mentor until I met my PI, Dr. Francois Robert. The commitment he has to each of his students is amazing and makes the research experience so much more meaningful. Good mentorship is invaluable for the production of good science, and I’m really happy my PI has given me such deep appreciation for it.
🧠 Yi Fei in BioDojo
What does it mean for you to be a part of BioDojo?
BioDojo is such a special community — everyone here is so motivated and full of potential. To me, being a part of BioDojo means to surround yourself with people you can share ideas, passions, and excitement with. It means taking initiative for your journey towards becoming a biotech innovator and having opportunities and experiences you wouldn’t be able to find elsewhere.
In your perspective, how is BioDojo uniquely positioned to be the training ground for the future of biotech innovators?
The experiences and people at BioDojo create a perfect environment to foster creativity, innovation, and community. I think the fact that BioDojo cohorts are so small makes it so that everyone in the community is active and passionate about what we’re doing. We all share the same kind of mindset towards building and innovation, and the bright minds in the field we get to sit down and chat with motivate us even further.
🚀 Yi Fei in the Future
What biotech professionals/careers inspire you the most and why?
Harvey Lodish — aside from being one of the greatest molecular bio researchers of his time, Lodish has also founded multiple startups like Genzyme, Carmine Therapeutics, Axys Pharmaceuticals, etc. His excellence in everything he pursues (and the fact that he engineered a treatment for Gaucher disease that later saved his grandson’s life!!) is really inspiring and speaks volumes to what can be accomplished by taking advantage of the intersection of biology and technology.
What problems/solutions gets you excited in the morning?
I am a big fan of cancer research, and the recent advances in nanotechnology makes me very excited to see its therapeutic applications for cancer treatments. Cancer immunotherapy is also a very cool and hot field right now — I think it’s really cool that we’re working on equipping our own immune system to fight cancers these days because nothing we engineer ourselves will be quite as intricate and complex as our existing immune system.
What lab environment do you want to create?
My goal is to one day have my own lab, and one thing I really want to emphasize in my lab environment is the importance of mentorship. I’m hoping to foster an environment of communication, collaboration, and support so that everyone in the lab can reach their full potential in terms of producing good science.
If you had unlimited funding, what problem would you solve?
I would invest in the development of sustainable resources and living — for example, pouring more money into the synthetic meat industry, renewable energy sources, electric vehicles, etc. Climate change is definitely one of the most pressing issues we’re facing, not only as a species but as a planet, and I imagine there will be enormous amounts of funding going towards it in the next century.
Where do you see yourself in 10 years?
In 10 years I’ll hopefully be a couple years out of my post-doc, as a new PI of a lab at a prestigious university in the US, doing cool research on something like cancer immunotherapy.
🔥 Get to Know Yi Fei
Top Book Recommendations? — Homo Sapiens trilogy by Noah Harari, Talking to Strangers by Malcolm Gladwell, The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August by Claire North, When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi
Top Podcast Recommendations? — I don’t listen to many podcasts but I love listening to CBC’s Quirks and Quarks
If not in STEM, I would be? — Author
Favourite non-academic past time? — Singing!
Currently trying to improve on? — Having a consistent workout routine, reading more papers
Top 3 characteristics/values that you have? — Openness, excitability, caring
If you’re interested in joining the community we’re now accepting applications for our second cohort! Apply here.