Women leading COVID-19 research at UC Davis: JoAnn Yee, manager of the Primate Assay Laboratory

Women leading COVID-19 research at UC Davis: JoAnn Yee, manager of the Primate Assay Laboratory

Photo Credits: WIKIMEDIA COMMONS

In an effort to showcase the work of UC Davis’ researchers, The California Aggie will be starting a series featuring women who have been contributing to a better understanding COVID-19

“Nobody gets a hundred percent on my tests.”

When JoAnn Yee, the manager of the Primate Assay Laboratory at the California National Primate Research Center, heard her middle school biology teacher say those words, she went ahead and did just that. But it wasn’t the prospect of a box of See’s Candies that motivated her success — it was the challenge. 

From a young age, Yee had many interests in both the STEM fields and the arts, but was particularly curious about why things are the way they are, and what causes them to be this way. What caught her attention about the sciences was that they were often the most challenging subjects — and she was up for the challenge. This interest continued when she entered UC Davis for her undergraduate career, where she went on to receive a bachelor’s degree in biochemistry. With no Asian women role models who had gone to graduate school for Yee to follow, she decided to get a job instead. She began to explore the field of clinical laboratory medicine and became a certified medical technician, but her love for trying new things brought her back to the research field.

“I think my coming of age in science was during the original HIV discovery and outbreak years,” Yee said. “I was involved in a really good group of people who were right on the edge of developing new tests and learning more about HIV. I was privileged to be a part of that and just to have applied what I learned there to other systems and other diseases as we’ve done along, and that’s how I got to where I am.”

Yee explained that her current laboratory is a core lab, meaning that in addition to conducting their own research, they are a service facility that can provide diagnostic tools for researchers who may not have access to them. Historically, she has done a lot of work in detecting contaminants in animal experimental subjects to make sure they are clean from possible factors that may affect future experiments. 

Most recently, her team has been working with other primate centers and researchers across the country to design, develop and build a test to detect antibodies for SARS-CoV-2, and the virus itself, in nasopharyngeal swab material for monkeys. The laboratory has also recently begun work on rapid testing in order to detect the virus on the same day.  

“When COVID-19 came up and SARS-CoV-2 was discovered, […] other people may have had the expertise with SARS-CoV-2, but we had the expertise to know, ‘How do you find a new virus? How do you detect a virus? And how do you see if the body is making an immune response to the virus?'” Yee said.

Amanda Carpenter, a staff research associate, explained that Yee’s previous experience with several serious viral issues, including the West Nile virus and Zika, in addition to HIV, have greatly contributed to their current research for COVID-19. Carpenter stated that she thinks one of Yee’s greatest contributions to the current coronavirus research field is the creation of a working group she started two years ago, where she established many connections with colleagues and collected many resources. Through this collaboration, researchers who are involved with COVID-19 diagnostic testing in non-human primates are able to share tips and exchange ideas.

“We’ve been able to share resources and samples in a time when it’s really hard to get resources,” Carpenter said.

Carpenter’s 14 years working with Yee started when she was an undergraduate student at UC Davis looking for lab experience. After coming across an undergraduate research project at the primate center, Yee became her mentor for the project and has continued sharing her expertise in the field since then. Yee also mentioned that she has had the opportunity to travel to foreign countries such as Thailand to work with students and junior scientists to help build and establish their own laboratories. Koen Van Rompay, a scientific director of the Primate Assay Laboratory, commended Yee for her skills in communicating and in teaching.

“She’s really good [at] guiding [students], training them so they can get the first laboratory experience,” Van Rompay said. “Many of the students [who work in our lab] decide to go on to graduate school or medical school or veterinary school.”

Despite a lack of role models in her earlier years, Yee stated that she gained many mentors throughout the years who helped her learn and made science fun.   

“I was really fortunate in that I came up through labs with really good mentors,” Yee said. “I worked for a number of professors who were very open and allowed you to ask questions and learn and didn’t really pay attention to what your title was, but if you had a good question they would take the time to explain to you and to teach you and let you do things whether it was in your job description or not.” 

For aspiring researchers, Yee recommends students to learn how to function safely and correctly in a laboratory while actively participating in the environment. She emphasized that students shouldn’t be afraid to ask questions and to stand up for what they think. 

“Just ask the honest questions and be willing to learn,” Yee said. “I think that wins people over. That fact that you’re willing to learn, the fact that you’re willing to put in the time and the effort to understand what’s going on and to make a contribution. I think you’ll be respected for that and you’ll win people over even if they weren’t so sure at the beginning.”

Written by: Michelle Wong — science@theaggie.org