Jae Yang receives 2022 Boyer Award

Photo of Jae Yang
Assistant scientist Jae Yang.

The Department of Biochemistry is pleased to announce Jae Yang as the winner of the 2022 Boyer Award for Postdoctoral Excellence in Biochemistry. The award recognizes and rewards excellence in research accomplishments in the Department of Biochemistry.

A cryo-electron microscopist and virologist by training, Jae has developed and used innovative workflows and tools for cryo-electron tomography (cryo-ET), including cryo-correlative light and electron microscopy (cryo-CLEM), cryo-focused ion-beam scanning electron microscopy (cryo-FIB-SEM), and cell micro-patterning tailored for transmission electron microscopy (TEM).

Her research at UW-Madison has focused on cryo-ET method development and structural virology. In collaboration with associate scientist Matt Larson, Jae led the development of CorRelator, a user-friendly cross-platform software tool that supports high-precision correlative imaging between light microscopy and cryo-EM. Now, she is incorporating 3D correlation for in-situ cryo-FIB milling workflows into CorRelator. Recently, Jae also developed solutions for high-throughput, larger field of view cryogenic tilt series collection, or ‘montage cryo-ET’, for high-magnification, high-resolution structural studies. This data collection scheme will be essential for resolving the vast, macromolecule-rich interiors of cells.

Jae’s other research includes EM structural studies of respiratory syncytial virus (RSV), HIV-1, and SARS-CoV-2 (the virus that causes COVID-19) to support vaccine development. Through collaborations with researchers at Emory University and biochemistry professor Elizabeth Wright, Jae determined the structures of RSV virus-like-particles (VLP) and HIV-1 envelope glycoproteins. Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, she characterized multivalent nanoparticle-based COVID-19 vaccine candidates in collaboration with researchers at the UW–Madison Influenza Research Institute and the Georgia Institute of Technology. Negative-stain EM and cryo-EM studies provided structural confirmation about the nanoparticles and their suitability as novel vaccine candidates.

Jae was promoted from postdoctoral research associate to assistant scientist in 2021 and is a member of the Midwest Center for Cryo-Electron Tomography (MCCET), a new national center that serves as the Hub of the NIH-funded National Network of Cryo-ET Centers. MCCET provides researchers access to and training in routine and advanced cryo-electron tomography specimen preparation, methods development, high-resolution data collection and computational analysis. When MCCET fully opens this summer, Jae will train MCCET users on sample preparation and data collection for cryo-ET using efficient and innovative workflows. She has already begun working with Integrated Program in Biochemistry (IPiB) graduate student Josh Mitchell on his project studying Eosinophil structure and function.

Jae says that she’s most proud of the tools and methods she’s developed and contributed to in the lab and the cryo-EM community. She is especially excited about the ongoing development of cryo-CLEM pipelines that will support users as they train and work with 2D and 3D light microscopy, FIB-milling, and cryo-ET data collection schemes.

“I think all of the images we collect during an experiment are beautiful,” Jae says. “We learn a lot about the biological system from these images. The simplicity and complexity of a network is so clearly seen, this is one reason I fell in love with microscopy as a student. With time, I hope to continue to expand the [cryo-ET] field more with new technologies to help new investigators ‘see’ the systems they are studying.”

Jae earned her Ph.D. in biophysics in the laboratory of professor Esther Bullitt at the Boston University School of Medicine in 2018.  She was the first to join biochemistry professor Elizabeth Wright’s team at UW–Madison. Since then, Jae and her colleagues have worked tirelessly to open two important research centers — first, the UW–Madison Cryo-Electron Microscopy Research Center (CEMRC), and now, the Midwest Center for Cryo-Electron Tomography (MCCET). The grand opening of the centers will be held June 7-8, 2022.

“Jae is an extremely talented structural biologist and structural virologist! Her work ethic, ability to teach others, and drive are astounding and unmatched amongst her peers,” Wright, who also directs the CEMRC and MCCET, says. “She’s one of the lab’s pioneers, in spirit and especially with respect to the science and technology we are developing. Her efforts will further our capacity to ‘open windows into cells’ for investigations of their interior and inner-workings.”

Recipients of the Boyer Award receive a $1,000 check and are asked to present their research in a public seminar. Jae’s seminar will be held on June 8 as part of the Department of Biochemistry’s 42nd Steenbock Symposium.

“I’m honored to receive the Boyer Award. I didn’t anticipate it — everybody works so hard and contributes greatly to the progress,” Jae says. “Our science is very exciting, but it can also be challenging. It is important to help build a supportive research environment with your mentor, colleagues, and collaborators. I am very lucky to have had amazing female mentors as strong role models along the way and have good people to work with and learn from. I am also learning to respect work-life balance for myself and others so we are able to achieve our individual and common goals.”

Update: This story was updated on February 24, 2022 to reflect the date of Jae’s seminar.

The Boyer Award was made possible by a generous donation from Paul D. Boyer, a graduate of the Department of Biochemistry who received an M.S. in 1941 and Ph.D. in 1943. Boyer was a co-winner of the 1997 Nobel Prize in Chemistry and used a portion of his prize to establish the Boyer Award for Postdoctoral Excellence in the Department of Biochemistry.

Written by Catherine Steffel, Ph.D. Please direct questions to communications@biochem.wisc.edu.