Growing up in a family of scientists had a great effect on Ying Xu’s career. With two chemistry professors for parents, he was exposed to science at a very early age. However, it was his uncle, a computer scientist, who encouraged him to study computer science or mathematics.
Xu obtained his Ph.D. in applied mathematics from the University of Colorado Boulder. During his doctoral studies, Xu knew very little about biology. Learning about biological research was a long process, shaped by his early career experiences.
“Oak Ridge National Laboratory was looking for someone who knew mathematics and statistics to be part of the Human Genome Project,” he said. “Through this project, I learned about evolution, genes and genomic structure.”
Afterward, Xu continued working on biology projects, such as the Genomes to Life project for the Department of Energy, where he was tasked with understanding the role of bacteria in the carbon cycle. Along the way, Xu wrote multiple books on bioinformatics and computational biology.
“I try to leave a mark in whatever I do,” he said. “I wanted to write as a way for me to develop a system-level understanding of these topics.”
In 2003, the University of Georgia recruited Xu to help establish the Institute of Bioinformatics. He is currently Georgia Research Alliance Eminent Scholar of Bioinformatics at UGA, where he uses computational and systems biology approaches to study cancer biology.
Longstanding questions about cancer, such as what causes it and what factors influence tumor growth, are what motivate Xu. And recent results from his research group may change our understanding of the disease.
“Since the 1970s, experts have been considering genetic mutations as the driver of cancer, but more researchers are starting to challenge this mainstream thinking.”
Image: Ying Xu (right) and co-author Yi Zhou published a new model looking at cancer as a stress-driven process.