Graduate School

Lenny Yong: Grant Getter, Results-Oriented Researcher


Hometown: Bordeaux, France

Age: 31

Major: Interdisciplinary Biological Sciences, PhD

Area of study: Biology/Evolutionary Biology

Lengxob “Lenny” Yong’s passion is biology, and his dedication to his research and dissertation work has garnered him a number of grants, including a prestigious dissertation improvement grant from the National Science Foundation. A doctoral student in the Interdisciplinary Doctoral Program in Biological Sciences, Yong is studying the evolution of a trait in females of a species of small freshwater fish that normally only occurs in males of that species. The PhD candidate’s work promises to test an important current model explaining the genetic basis of the origin of new traits.


How did you choose your area of graduate study?

Like many biologists, I have always been fascinated by biodiversity. After my undergraduate years, I took some time off to work in the marine sciences, specifically with marine mammals. While working with whales as an intern, I became more interested in evolutionary-based questions, such as "How did whales adapt to a marine environment? How did new morphological traits come about? Why are males and females so morphologically different?" However, for answering such scientific questions, large vertebrates are not always best suited for studying evolutionary processes. So I moved on to studying another, but more amenable, vertebrate model, the threespine stickleback, which has enabled me to tackle the same basic and evolutionary questions and also led to my current graduate program at ECU. 

What do you find most challenging/rewarding about your graduate school experience?

Applying for external research grants is probably one of the most challenging, yet best learning, experiences. That is because, not only am I competing with my peers at ECU, but I am also competing with others at a national level. Funding resources can be limited, and the competition can be intense as there are plenty of bright minds out there. On the other hand, once you are awarded a research grant, it is perhaps one of the most rewarding experiences. It is gratifying to know that all of that hard work paid off and have your research being acknowledged as worthy of funding support.

What is cool about your area of study and why should people care about it?

The cool thing about my area of study is that it is rapidly 'evolving,' and new discoveries are made daily. New technologies now also enable us to test some very longstanding ideas in biology. For instance, we can now relatively and easily study the genetic basis of many important complex traits, especially those implicated in human diseases using genome sequencing, as well as successfully modify genes of interest using newly available genomic editing tools. While my area of study does not directly cure diseases, it provides a better understanding for some very basic biological processes and establishes the foundation for most types of translational and applied sciences, which could potentially result in a disease treatment or a cure. As a result, my area of study can have some very long-term implications, and the public needs to be informed about the importance of basic sciences, which may lead to major scientific breakthroughs and societal benefits.

Tell us about any academic awards/recognitions/publications you may have achieved:

National Science Foundation Dissertation Improvement Grant, Phi Kappa Phi, Theodore Roosevelt Memorial Grant Award, Rosemary Grant Award, Pre-doctoral Ford Foundation Honorable Mention, Ford Foundation Dissertation Fellowship Honorable Mention, Raney Ichthyology Research Award, Northwest Marine Technology Innovative Research Grant

What recognition are you most proud of and why?

I am most proud of the fact that I was a major writing contributor with my advisor on a successfully funded NIH grant. Those grants are primarily awarded to senior researchers, and the fact that I co- wrote a proposal that was recognized by the NIH as an important piece of scientific research, was an important milestone for my professional growth.   How do you think your ECU graduate education has helped you? It has helped me to develop at a professional level. The ECU community is a very close-knit environment, where it is relatively easy to contact anyone for personal advice or professional guidance. This also facilitates potential networking and collaboration opportunities, as well.

What would you say to someone considering ECU as a potential graduate school?

ECU has some very strong professional programs, which are sadly often understated. It provides all that is needed for professional and personal development. The graduate student body is small and cohesive, and offers good support when in need. Also, the University is located in an area that is relatively affordable for graduate school and close enough to outdoorsy recreations, e.g. the beach, if you need a short stress-free escape.  

Hobbies: Traveling, trying new food varieties, scuba diving

5:45am-7:00am Workout
7:00am-8:00am Get to campus/ Eat breakfast
8:00am-8:30am Reply to e-mails
8:30am-10:00am Fish Maintenance/Writing
10:00am-12:00pm Write/Read Scientific Papers/Run Experiments
12:00pm-1:00pm Lunch
1:00pm-4:30pm Write/Read Scientific Papers/Run Experiments
2:50pm-5:00pm Fish Maintenance
5:00pm-6:30pm Finish any last minute experiments and prepare for the next day
6:30-8:00pm Relaxing time/Dinner
8:00pm-11:00pm Catch up on reading and writing
11pm-11:30pm Check last minute e-mails and to bed
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College: Brody School of Medicine

Clubs & Organizations: BGSA, Phi Kappa Phi

Internships: Whale Center of New England, Wolf Hollow Rehabilitation Center

Favorite class: Anything in Biology

Professor who has influenced you the most: Dr. Tim Bartness

Dream job: Scientific Researcher

Reasons for choosing Biology: Ever since I was a child, I had a passion for biology and all of the sciences in general. I grew up watching documentaries, e.g. National Geographic, and had a special interest in studying marine animals and surveying the oceans. Thankfully, I had the opportunity to pursue that soon after college.

Your words to live by: “Stay healthy and active, be kind to others, work hard, maintain a sense of humor, and embrace change.”

Significant life lesson you’ve learned while at ECU: Staying proactive and persistent is probably the biggest lesson that I've learned so far. While many people, e.g. mentors, friends, would be willing to help you at ECU, ultimately, you have to take charge of the direction of your learning experience and career. With that, you must be willing to widen your options, take some risks, and think outside of the box (especially in my line of work), including thinking about approaches that others have not considered or avoided to consider. Given the limited experience of some, there is only so much that they can do to help you. But you can make things happen for yourself if you're willing to put in the time and effort. Needless to say, with that comes more obstacles, which is why it is also important to "keep at it," especially when facing failure and rejection. Importantly, one must NOT give up. In the end, as long as you know what your goals are and are willing to do what is necessary to fulfill them (and persist), you can only be successful.