Senior Receives Prestigious Research Awards

Norman Y. Yao ’09 received the 2009 Captain Jonathan Fay Prize from the Radcliffe Institute for breakthrough research on the mechanical properties of cellular networks on Wednesday.

Yao was selected for the honor from among the 83 winners of the Thomas T. Hoopes Prize for the quality and impact of his senior thesis, which describes an innovative scientific technique to measure the properties of neurofilaments, one of the structural elements found in nerve cells.

"More than anything, I am very humbled and honored to have been selected out of such an amazing group of [Hoopes Prize winners] who have produced amazing work,” Yao said.

Yao’s senior thesis, titled “Nonlinear Mechanics of Biopolymer Networks,” describes his study of the elasticity of neurofilaments, which have the tendency to stiffen when stretched. Yao devised an approach for measuring neurofilaments’ elasticity that proved more accurate than traditional methods, which are best suited for materials that do not stiffen. His technique yielded high-quality data and made it possible for researchers to discover the origin of the protein interactions that caused stiffening in neurofilaments.

“This is a new approach likely to be helpful to many in the fields of biology, biophysics and bioengineering,” said Rosalind A. Segal, a neurobiology professor and the director of the science program at the Radcliffe Institute, in a press release issued by the Institute.

Yao’s senior thesis is based on four manuscripts, of which he is the lead author on three and a lead co-author on one.

Last month, Yao was also made one of 16 fellows to receive the Department of Energy's 2009 Computational Science Graduate Fellowship--a well-known and highly competitive honor funded by the Office of Science and Office of Defense Programs.

According to Mary Ann Leung—program manager at the Krell Institute, which administers the award—the fellowship seeks individuals with promise as researchers.

“[Norman’s] academic record, his research record, and his recommendations all indicate that in many cases he is performing at the level of a senior graduate student,” Leung said. “We’re looking forward to seeing what he does with his graduate career.”

As part of the program, Yao will receive over $70,000 in yearly stipends, university tuition, academic allowance, and computer support for the duration of his graduate career.

“It’s such an honor to be given a fellowship like that,” Yao said. “It allows you to choose any research adviser and gives you so many opportunities in grad school.”

Yao credits his undergraduate research advisor, Physics professor David A. Weitz, for much of his success.

“My work in the Weitz lab has been the cornerstone of my undergraduate experience and has taught me about the importance of interdisciplinary research,” Yao said in the press release issued by the Radcliffe Institute.

Yao said that Weitz was an “immense help” during his fellowship application process, editing and polishing drafts of Yao’s research proposal.

“Everything he gets, he absolutely deserves, and the credit should all go to him,” Weitz said of Yao. “Norm is smart, conscientious, kind, and works very hard. You can’t ask for a better student.”

In the future, Yao said he plans to wrap up his current research in biophysics and branch out into the field of atomic physics. He will pursue a doctoral degree in condensed matter physics at Harvard this fall.

--Staff writer Manning Ding can be reached at ding3@fas.harvard.edu.