Hang Yin

MS, Epidemiology ’18
Ph.D. candidate, Public Health Genetics
Beijing, China

As an undergraduate student working in research labs, Hang Yin was always curious about how to improve population health and health equity, particularly in the field of cancer. Now a Ph.D. student in the Institute for Public Health Genetics (IPHG) program at the University of Washington School of Public Health (UW SPH), Yin has found a way to do just that.  

One of the biggest barriers to genetic epidemiology research is the lack of data by race and ethnicity. However, Yin’s research focuses on racial and ethnic disparities in colorectal cancer mortality and prioritizes the inclusion of populations that tend to experience higher rates of disease burden. 

In this Q&A, Yin shares her thoughts on how to improve health equity when it comes to public health genetics, her research goals and the impact she hopes they will have, and advice for new students. 

What first drew you to public health and why do you enjoy studying it?  

Public health bridges my interests in basic medicine and translational science. While working in the lab as an undergraduate, I never stopped thinking about how I could apply my research to improve population health, especially in the field of cancer.  

Genetics is a fast-growing area with emerging biotechnology, and fruitful research findings have been used in new treatments and disease prevention. Public health genetics not only focuses on quantitative research on genetic epidemiology and statistical genetics, but also takes into account the ethical, legal and social implications (ELSI). It binds together diverse fields striving to improve the world. 

Why did you decide to come to the UW for graduate school?   

The UW is one of the most prestigious research universities around the world; it provides me with an ideal research environment and equips me with admirable competency to achieve my goal as an independent researcher in the field of genetic and cancer epidemiology. I have gained systematic skill sets in epidemiological methods, statistical analysis and programing from my master’s degree in epidemiology at the UW, and the UW IPHG could fulfill my further training in genomics and computational biology. In addition, the UW IPHG is the only program that offers a Ph.D. in public health genetics in the United States. It is unique because of its attention to the science of genetics and the social implications of genetic discoveries. The interdisciplinary nature distinguishes it from other programs and fits my background well. 

The UW also has close connections with the Fred Hutchison Cancer Center, which offers valuable opportunities to work with leading scientists in cancer and connect with more students who share similar research interests with me. 

In your opinion, how do we improve health equity when it comes to public health genetics? 

Improving health equity requires strong collaborations between academic institutions, health care systems, the community, and other key stakeholders. Most genetic research prioritizes populations with European ancestry and the results may not be transferable to other populations. Studies that include diverse populations, especially historically underserved populations, will provide more reliable evidence that can be integrated into implementation guidelines that will have the potential to benefit all communities.  

Tell us about your research. What impact do you hope it will have?   

My research focuses on racial and ethnic disparities in colorectal cancer (CRC) mortality, and my mentor for this work is Dr. Riki Peters, research professor of epidemiology and associate director of Public Health Sciences Division at Fred Hutch. African American and Alaska Native peoples experience extremely high CRC incidence and mortality compared to the level in non-Hispanic white peoples. However, most tumor profiling studies have been done in non-Hispanic white patients. In addition, studies on key molecular features related to CRC-specific death across race and ethnicity are lacking.  

Through my research, I will integrate transcriptomic and other epidemiological data to identify gene expression profiles that impact CRC mortality and determine if those features are different by race and ethnicity. I will further perform tumor spatial profiling to characterize cellular organizations within the tumor microenvironment to better understand intra-tumor heterogeneity and its association of CRC mortality. This is a unique study because it includes CRC patients who are African American, Alaska Native, Hispanic, and non-Hispanic white peoples. It will fill the gaps in tumor profiling characteristics in diverse racial and ethnic groups and identify potential therapeutic targets in addressing the CRC disparities.  

This research is now supported by the National Cancer Institute Predoctoral to Postdoctoral Fellow Transition Award (F99/K00) from the National Institutes of Health as my dissertation. I am grateful for my dissertation committee chair, Dr. Riki Peters, and all my committee members for supporting this research. Beyond completion of my dissertation, this grant will support my postdoctoral research in discovering precise prognostic biomarkers that use cutting-edge technologies and methods and will prepare me for the transition to an independent cancer researcher.

What do you wish the general public knew about your area of research that might be misunderstood or not talked about enough? 

I wish that people better understood that the lack of data by race and ethnicity is a critical barrier to determining whether there are underlying biological differences that drive the disparate CRC mortality. My research talks about the genetic and molecular factors associated with CRC-specific mortality in a race- and ethnicity-sensitive way while most studies focus on one racial and ethnic group.   

What experiences at UW SPH have been most influential?

I really like the atmosphere in classes and research labs. I have received interdisciplinary trainings in genetics, epidemiology, biostatistics, and ELSI in public health genetics. UW SPH provides fabulous learning opportunities in summer school, seminars, and journal clubs to catch up on cutting-edge findings and technologies. The Institute of Public Health Genetics is a unique program that gathers together people who are interested in genes, but with different backgrounds. We are a small but close program and I always gain energy from my cohorts.   

What is one piece of advice that you have for new public health students or one thing you wish you knew before beginning your public health studies?

I would say that it is important to connect with your peers, students ahead of you in their academic career, other students in your cohort and in your area of research. I received valuable advice from peers about how to prepare for the preliminary exam, electives selections and grant writing. We encouraged each other through the challenging times and celebrated together for each achievement.  

What interests do you have outside of (or related to) public health? Any extracurricular activities?

I like hiking, traveling and playing tennis with my friends when it is sunny, and painting, drawing, and building Legos on rainy days. I also enjoy snowboarding and like to decompress while riding in the woods and mountains.