This article is from the archives of the UB Reporter.

Yu realizes childhood dream at UB

Pharmacy faculty member leaves Chinese homeland for research, teaching career

Published: July 28, 2005

Contributing Editor

Even as a child, working alongside his parents in their fields outside a small village in central China, Aiming Yu knew what he wanted from life.


Although he worked alongside his parents on the family farm outside a village in central China, Aiming Yu says his childhood dream was to be a scientist.

"I always dreamed I'd be a scientist when I was a kid," says Yu, who last fall joined the faculty of the School of Pharmacy and Pharmaceutical Sciences as an assistant professor of pharmaceutical sciences.

And though he greatly misses his family and friends back in his homeland, Yu feels quite fortunate to be living his dream here in Western New York.

"When I think about it, I think I was so lucky to have the opportunity to learn, to come to the United States, to learn a different culture and learn the science I love," he adds.

Yu smiles when he speaks about the countryside where he grew up in the Hubei province of China, where the world's third-longest river, the Yangtze, meets its longest branch, the Hansui. The surrounding area is one of low and smooth terrain, dotted with lakes.

"My parents were farmers, but it's different there," Yu says. "In China, farmers didn't own too much land—usually less than a quarter of one acre in my hometown—on which we grew all kinds of plants, rice and such. I did all kinds of work in the fields myself. I think it was a good experience for me."

At the time, most children living in underdeveloped rural areas attended just five to eight years of school—unable to reach the goal of nine years of compulsory education—and rarely continued on to college.

"The ratio was very low, especially for people from the country; it was very difficult to go to college," Yu explains.

But Yu was clearly enthralled by even the simplest of experiments in his science classes. His teachers noticed and encouraged him to proceed in his studies.

"I remember particularly a class in middle school, in chemistry, when the teacher was doing an experiment in which he put alcohol on our hands, and how cool it felt as it evaporated," Yu says. "For a kid, it was exciting."

Another influence for Yu was his father, who was able to attend school for only two years because "my grandparents didn't have the money." Nevertheless, Yu describes him as a smart man who knew the value of education and who borrowed money from friends when Yu's older brother became a medical resident so he could buy him a white lab coat.

"He always pushed we three (Yu, his older brother and older sister) to go to school. When I was young, we had some arguments about going to school. Now, especially with my own son, I really understand my dad. He did the right thing for me and I really appreciate it."

Yu attended high school from 1986-89 in what is now known as Huangzhou City, and then Central China Normal University in Wuhan, Hubei Province, to study chemistry. He earned a Ph.D. from Nankai University in Tianjin, completing his dissertation in the area of combinatorial chemistry.

Nankai University also is where Yu met his wife, an international banking major. Married in 1997, they came to the United States the following year when Yu accepted a postdoctoral position at the University of Washington in Seattle.

Two years later, when his advisor moved to West Virginia University, Yu followed, as did his wife, who earned a master's degree in computer science at the school.

After completing the project at WVU, Yu said he "personally wanted to receive broader training," and so accepted another postdoctoral position at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Md.

"Indeed, I improved a lot there while I continued to work in the areas of drug metabolism and pharmacogenetics," he said.

Now at UB, Yu says his research interests include drug metabolism, specifically studying the biotransformation of drugs in humans, as well as pharmacogenetics, in which he is studying the genetic determinant in the metabolism of several psychoactive drugs called indolealkylamines.

"They are found as active forms in a variety of botanical products, such as the wine ayahuasca," Yu says. "They have potential for therapeutic use, but face safety issues, including overdosing abuse for recreational purpose. Our studies will disclose the genetic risk factor for these drugs. Our research is anticipated to aid in better regulation, management or medical use of these drugs toward preventing overdosing abuse or adverse effects. In addition, novel means may be found to assist the treatment of indolealkylamine poisonings."

Though Yu's mother has visited the United States since he moved here, he misses his parents and his siblings. His older brother, now a physician in Wuhan, Hubei Province, and his older sister each have married and are raising their own families near his parents. Yu and his wife, who have a 5-year-old son, wish they could return to China often, but for now cover the distance by phone.

But Yu is happy to be at UB, a job he says he accepted for several reasons.

"The first reason was that UB and the school of pharmacy have excellent reputations. We are well-known in the field of pharmaceutical sciences throughout the world," he says. "The faculty members here are very friendly, very supportive and are doing cutting-edge research. The department has excellent research facilities. Finally, it's a good place to live and to raise a family. I am fortunate to have the opportunity to join esteemed UB and pursue my career."