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Dr. Xin Yan, an assistant professor in the Department of Chemistry at Texas A&M University, has been selected to receive a National Science Foundation Faculty Early Career Development (CAREER) Award, a prestigious honor intended to help kick-start the careers of rising faculty with the potential to become academic leaders in both research and education.

Yan’s proposal, "Lipid Mass Tags Designed Via Selective Dissociation,” has been funded through the Division of Chemistry through January 2027. The $625,000 project, which builds on Yan's burgeoning expertise in droplet chemistry and accelerated reactions in microdroplets, aims to develop novel approaches to quantifying unsaturated lipids using mass spectrometry — ideally, multiple lipids in a single experiment — in order to better understand their roles in physiological and pathological processes such as disease.

Lipids play a vital role in maintaining cellular function, and their concentrations are tightly controlled by the human body in regulating a wide range of biological activities. Alterations in the way they are metabolized can serve as hallmarks for early disease diagnosis, disease-progression monitoring and therapeutic-response prediction.

Because changes in the levels of lipid species occur after physiological agitation, Yan says that knowing their concentrations is key to determining their roles in physiological processes as well as their most effective use as disease biomarkers — a technological frontier she intends to use her NSF funding to expand.

"Development of lipid quantification approaches currently is stagnant, and the available methods are not able to accurately quantify lipids from biological samples," Yan said. "I'm truly honored to receive this prestigious award from the NSF to support my research team in our work on the development of lipid mass tags for quantification and accelerated discovery of lipid biomarkers."

Yan joined the Texas A&M Chemistry faculty in 2018, launching an independent research program that features a cutting-edge combination of catalysis and molecular synthesis, synthetic and structural biology, and sustainability in a broader effort to develop and apply novel mass spectrometric methodologies in disease diagnosis, reaction monitoring and new synthetic methodology. In particular, the Yan Group is motivated by the possibility of enabling new technology for next-generation approaches to precision medicine and sustainable synthesis. Her approach relies chiefly on droplet chemistry, a compartmentalized ecosystem ripe with synthetic chemistry potential, from faster, more efficient chemical reactions to accelerated production of small molecules.

The NSF project in particular complements Yan's ongoing investigations of next-generation mass spectrometry-based lipidomics funded by a recent National Institutes of Health (NIH) Maximizing Investigators’ Research Award (MIRA). Established in 2015, the MIRA Program is intended to better fund science by better supporting investigators and their overall research programs through single, unified grants that improve their funding stability, versus multiple smaller awards.

Although lipid isomers share the same molecular formulas, Yan notes they can play dramatically different biological roles in cellular functions. While recent efforts in mass spectrometry-based lipidomics, including ion activation methods and chemical derivatization, have expanded the toolbox for lipid analysis, there currently is no single method capable of resolving all types of lipid structures, which are diverse because they often contain mixtures of isomers. Yan says the lack of efficient and reliable analytical approaches for discerning lipid isomers in biological samples is directly tied to the fact that the physiological roles and functions of lipid isomers remain largely unknown, a fact she and her group hope to change with support from the NIH.

Yan's MIRA proposal, "Panoptic electrochemical probe for next-generation mass spectrometry-based lipidomics," seeks to develop new techniques and comprehensive capabilities for revealing lipid structure and composition — advances that Yan says are essential for the study of lipid structure-function relationships and the development of methods to diagnose and treat pathologies.

"I am thrilled to receive the MIRA from NIH that allows my research team to address the deficiencies in lipid structural analysis using our unique microdroplet electrochemical methods that take advantage of voltage-controlled electrochemical derivatization of lipid isomers and the dramatically accelerated rates of electrochemical transformations at microdroplet interfaces to achieve structural elucidation," Yan said.

Yan earned both her master of science in health sciences (2011) and Ph.D. in chemistry (2015) from Purdue University, then spent three years as a postdoctoral researcher at Stanford University prior to being recruited to Texas A&M. She previously was honored with a 2021 American Society for Mass Spectrometry (ASMS) Research Award recognizing young academic scientists for their early research accomplishment and career potential. In addition to her research, Yan has been recognized for her teaching, earning selection as the 2022-23 recipient of the Montague-CTE Scholar Award for the College of Science, an honor given to one tenure-track faculty member in each of Texas A&M’s academic colleges based on their early ability and interest in teaching.

“I am delighted that Xin Yan has been awarded this prestigious award from the NSF," said Dr. Simon W. North, John W. Bevan Professor of Chemistry and head of Texas A&M Chemistry. "She has launched a transformative research program at the interface of analytical chemistry, chemical biology and organic chemistry, and her early accomplishments are consistent with the trajectory of a visionary future leader in microdroplet mass spectrometry.”

Each year, the NSF presents an estimated 500 CAREER awards totaling around $250 million to early career faculty at US institutions of higher learning, museums, observatories, research laboratories, professional societies and similar organizations associated with research or educational activities.

Learn more about the NSF CAREER program or Yan and her research.

About Research At Texas A&M University

As one of the world’s leading research institutions, Texas A&M is at the forefront in making significant contributions to scholarship and discovery, including in science and technology. Research conducted at Texas A&M generated annual expenditures of more than $1.148 billion in fiscal year 2021. Texas A&M ranked 14th in the most recent National Science Foundation’s Higher Education Research and Development Survey based on expenditures of more than $1.131 billion in fiscal year 2020. Texas A&M’s research creates new knowledge that provides basic, fundamental and applied contributions resulting, in many cases, in economic benefits to the state, nation and world. To learn more, visit Research@Texas A&M.