At 14, inspired by stories of world-changing science and new technologies, Lan Yang was so committed to becoming a scientist, she went on a hunger strike.
Being dedicated, curious and having a self-described persistence and “passion for science” has contributed to Yang’s already successful career. In 2010, she was honored by President Barack Obama with a Presidential Early Career Awards for Scientists and Engineers (PECASE).
It was because of that curiosity that she once took a course in entrepreneurship. She filed her first patent as a graduate student. Now Yang, the Edwin H. and Florence G. Skinner Professor in the School of Engineering & Applied Science at Washington University in St. Louis, holds the most patents and disclosures of any female faculty member.
Decades before excelling at WashU, as a middle school student in a small town in the Hunan province of China, Yang already knew she wanted to be a scientist. As her final year came to an end, she was faced with a decision: “There were two ways to go,” Yang says. “One was high school, the other was a professional school.”
Because of her high test scores, she would have been able to secure a spot in a good professional school and a guaranteed job when she finished three years later. “My mom wanted me to do that,” Yang says. “I didn’t want to, but at a young age what can you do?”
The summer came and went, and it was almost time for Yang to begin training as an accountant, one of the more sustainable careers offered then. She couldn’t bring herself to do it.
“I told my parents, ‘I won’t go. If you don’t let me go to high school, I will not eat anything,’” she says. Her hunger strike worked, and despite popular opinion that girls were not good at math and that she wouldn’t do well in high school, she thrived. “I guess I surprised those people,” she says.
There was a specific reason Yang wanted to go to high school: college. And not just any college, the University of Science and Technology of China (USTC). “When I was in middle school, I read a few tutorial books written by professors at that university,” Yang says. “Those books led me to science and math in particular. I wanted to go to that college and learn from those professors.”
Again, people told her she shouldn’t apply. No one from her town had ever been accepted to USTC. They said it was “impossible.”
Of course for Yang, it wasn’t.
At USTC, Yang studied with some of the very same instructors who inspired her as a middle school student. “I was so thrilled,” she says. She went on to the California Institute of Technology (Cal Tech) and studied material science, but soon decided she wanted a little adventure.
Wanting to learn something she didn’t know before, she chose photonics because, as she says, “light is everywhere and has been playing an important role in our lives,” citing examples such as fiber-optic communications and laser surgery for medical applications. She thought she could do something that might really impact people’s lives.
At about this time, Yang took a course on entrepreneurship and commercializing technology. “I found it very intriguing,” she says. She applied for her first patent as a graduate student at Cal Tech. “And then I was addicted.”
The importance of patents
Yang continued to apply for patents after her transition to Washington University 11 years ago. Through all that time, she was simply applying for patents as a way to document her work. “It was only at WashU, when I met Paul Carter, that someone explained why I actually needed a patent.” Without a patent it would be hard to commercialize her work because her technology wouldn’t be protected; anyone would have the right to copy it, explained Carter, the business development director at the Office of Technology Management.
“So patents are a good way to push forward,” Yang says. “It’s not just protection, it’s like an incentive to motivate others to commercialize new technologies.” She is sure to share that knowledge so that others understand the importance of protecting their work.
Yang has five issued patents, eight pending patents, and 17 invention disclosures (a formal indication that a researcher has invented something novel, the first step in the patent process).
After all the challenges she faced as a young woman interested in science, Yang has landed in a place where she feels, finally, as if her gender is not a barrier.
“At the School of Engineering & Applied Science, I don’t feel like being female has any disadvantages,” she says. Though she doesn’t hesitate to acknowledge that she has heard stories where women are still facing difficulties in the sciences she doesn’t feel that way here. “This school and department, they are very supportive,” she says. “Whenever I need resources, they sincerely try hard to help.”
She hasn’t forgotten the challenges she faced as a girl who was interested in science, however, which is why she has a dream that one day she can work on textbooks just for kids.
Despite her clashing with her parents as a kid, Yang says with a laugh, “My parents are so proud.
“My mom says, ‘It’s fortunate that you stick to making up your own mind.’”