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Alumni Spotlight, featuring Yong Cheng

In this edition of BMB’s Alumni Spotlight, we feature Yong Cheng, Ph.D.

Yong Cheng is currently an Assistant Member, St. Jude Faculty, at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital.  He earned both his bachelor’s of science and master’s of science degrees from Nankai University in Tianjin, China.  After earning his masters degree, Yong chose Penn State to complete his graduate studies and earned his Ph.D. in 2009.  While at Penn State, and in the BMMB Program, Yong studied under the mentorship of T. Ming Chu Professor of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, Ross C. Hardison.

Upon earning his Ph.D., Yong traveled across the country and conducted his postdoctoral fellowship at Stanford from 2010 – 2016.  He conducted his postdoc experience under the mentorship of Michael Snyder.  His research focused on regulatory elements and investigated hundreds of TFs in different cell types and species.

Image of Yong Cheng

Now at St. Jude, Yong is part of the Hematology Department.  His lab’s research focus is to understand the functions of the human genome, especially non-coding regulatory elements. Using high-throughput functional genomic approaches, he investigates regulatory elements in normal blood development and disorders. Additionally, he is also interested in the application of regulatory elements in treating genetic disorders using genome editing and gene therapy. 

Let’s chat with Yong, talk about his experiences at Penn State, and catch up with what he’s been up to.

What is it that you do at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital?

I am a principle investigator who lead a team working on understanding the functions of human genome and the impact on childhood blood disorders.

Image of Yong Cheng and his daughters






What was it that made you want to come to Penn State, and BMB, to pursue your education?

When I applied to graduate school, I was excited by the broad research area in the BMB. Later, My H1-Visa was denied. It was one of the darkest time in my life. Then, I got an email from the BMMB Program. I was told that PSU will always behind its students, and my status will be extended for one year so that I can apply for the VISA again. That email changed my life.

How do you feel Penn State, and BMB, prepared you for your current position or career?

My scientific way of thinking was developed when I was a graduate student in PSU. Without this training, I would not be able to find an idea place to conduct my postdoc research and land my current position.

Did you conduct research while at Penn State?  Where was your research conducted and what was its focus?

I conducted my Ph.D. research in Dr. Ross Hardison's lab for five years. Our lab was located in the 3rd floor of Wartik Building.  We used comparative genomic and functional genomic approaches to predict, validate and analyze DNA sequences occupied by a master transcription factor, GATA1.

Share at least one interesting/fun fact about yourself.

I enjoy fixing things ever since I was a child and never outgrow it. I am pretty good at fixing malfunctioned laptops, small electronics, bugs in the program, and a lot of toys broken by the two little monsters in the house. Of course, the biggest dream for me is to fix the problems in the human genome.

Image of Yong Cheng and his family hiking
Yong and his family hiking the Stanford Dish Loop Trail.





What do you like to do when you’re not at work?

I like cooking traditional Chinese food, hiking and birding.

Image of Yong Cheng and his family at the lion shrine



Favorite “We Are Penn State” Moment.

When I first moved to Memphis area, my wife and I made an appoint to visit a preschool for my daughter. When we got off the car, a teacher parked next to us came to ask if we graduated from Penn State, as she saw the Nittany lion license plate in our car.  It turned out that she is also a PSU alumnus. She gave us the best preschool tour and my daughter spent three happy years there. After the 2019 Cotton Bowl, she sent us a picture of her, wearing PSU sweaters among her Memphis Tiger friends.

Advice from Yong to future generations of scientists:

I just have one advice for new graduate students who are going to start their lab rotation- Try something new.  By doing so, you make the best use of the broad areas of research in the department.