[Skip to Content]

Good job: Scientist Yanli Zhang-James researches genetic connections to autism, Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder

This regular "Good Job" feature will showcase some of the people at Upstate who are doing such fun and interesting work. Today, meet Yanli Zhang-James, PhD:

YanlizhangjamesHer job: research scientist in psychiatry and behavioral sciences.

"I just graduated in 2007 with my PhD, and I've been doing post-doctoral work with Dr. Stephen Faraone. I am in transition to being an independent researcher. This award (a $60,000 Young Investigator Grant from the Brain and Behavior Research Foundation) is my first step toward doing independent research."

She studies a specific gene and its connection to autism or Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, trying to determine whether it affects learning and memory.

"Our lab is a translational neuroscience lab. Dr. (Stephen) Faraone, my mentor, works with geneticists, psychiatrists and epidemiologists all over the world who are looking for risk genes for ADHD. In our lab we find out what kind of genetic mutations are associated with the disorder, and how genetic or environmental risk factors affect the disease.”

Listen to Yanli Zhang-James' interview on Health Link on Air radio,

airing at 9 a.m. Aug. 21 on WSYR FM 107.9

How she got started: "I went to medical school in China. My parents wanted me to be a medical doctor. I have an uncle in China who is a neurologist, and my parents are both doctors. I came to Upstate Medical University in 2002 to be a PhD student."

She studied Parkinson's disease with Frank Middleton, PhD, and collaborated with Faraone on ADHD. "These two disorders share very common mechanisms," she explains. In Parkinson's, brains don't have adequate amounts of the neurotransmitter, dopamine because neurons in the mid-brain that make the dopamine die. In ADHD, the neurons don't die, but they do not have adequate dopamine, for multiple reasons.

What her day is like: "It varies. Sometimes I come here at nights or weekends. We're not bankers. Once you start a treatment on cells, you might have to wait 6 or 7 hours. Sometimes lately, people in the lab will go play racquetball and then come back and keep working."

Why she likes it: "I get excited to see interesting things. If we find something new, something that is novel, I just get very excited."

When she‘s not working: “I like to read about science, about brains, and I feel very fortunate that I have the opportunity to test ideas. A lot of what we do is very creative and idea-driven.”

Her goal: A gene called SLC9A9 has been implicated in ADHD in multiple genetic studies and has recently been identified as a risk gene for autism.

“It‘s rare. It‘s very rare. But a lot of autism risk genes are rare,” she says.

“If I can understand fully what this gene does and how the mutation of this gene can cause deficits, I‘ll be happy with that.”

One challenge: "I can get distracted and go into too many different directions. My mentor always tells me to keep focused."

Read about her grant.

Listen to her radio interview on Health Link on Air:

[audio http://www.upstate.edu/healthlinkonair/blog/zhangjames_yanli.mp3]