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Yong Cheng (left) has created a cooperative environment in his lab, which benefits both the students like Stephen Kotey and the research. (Photo by Braden Payne)

Researching Compassion

Thursday, May 26, 2022

Media Contact: Jami Mattox | Agricultural Communications Services | 405-744-8061 | jami.mattox@okstate.edu

As the primary investigator on a Mycobacterium tuberculosis research project with potential global impacts, Yong Cheng, assistant professor in the Oklahoma State University Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, could define his career with the findings and accomplishments of his research of the bacterial pathogen responsible for tuberculosis, or TB.

Instead, Cheng’s work with undergraduate and graduate students defines a different kind of impact. The experiences gained through Cheng’s lab contribute to the career success of his students, said Charlie Vermeire, who is a sophomore double majoring in biochemistry and in microbiology/cell and molecular biology.

Vermeire works in Cheng’s lab.

“Dr. Cheng puts such an emphasis on teaching,” Vermeire said. “I have found that to be really rewarding.

“Many times, students do not get teaching experience until they reach graduate school, but Dr. Cheng has more experienced undergraduate students mentoring the less experienced students. My teaching experience, now as a sophomore, will give me an advantage as I move through the rest of my education.”

Research is not the only way Cheng helps students with their career aspirations, Vermeire said.

“Dr. Cheng pushes his students not only toward learning new lab procedures, but also toward applying for grants and presenting our work,” Vermeire said. “He pushes us, even when we are not sure we can do what he is asking. He is usually right about what we can accomplish.”

While important, Cheng’s research is just part of a larger impact being made in the department and with students, said John Gustafson, professor and BIMB department head.

“Dr. Cheng set up a biotechnology development and implementation course, which is a first for our department,” Gustafson said. “He did that by collaborating with people from the business school.

“He also ran our biochemistry and molecular biology laboratory where this year he actually brought authentic research experiences into the classroom.”

Cheng said he is motivated by the success of his students. His mentors and professors helped him, he added, and now he works to be that same help to his students.

“There are two types of kind people in the world,” said Stephen Kotey, a doctoral student in BIMB. “There are those who wait for you to bring your problem to them, and then they will show their kindness through that.

“Then, there are those who, in showing kindness, will take the initiative. You do not have to ask. They will sit back, think about how you can develop, and bring it to you without even being asked. Both forms are good, but Cheng is the one who takes initiative in being kind.”

Cheng said he intentionally builds relationships with his lab members to learn how best to prepare and assist them with their career goals.

“I have been able to have both graduate students and undergraduate students in my lab,” Cheng said. “I am always thinking about the many different fellowships they can apply for. I tell students in my lab to let me know if they are interested in any fellowships. I want to help make them a success.”

Cheng keeps students’ career goals in mind and helps them pursue avenues that will allow them to stand apart from others, Vermeire said.

“Knowing that I am interested in a doctoral program, Dr. Cheng is pushing me to work toward publications that will look good on applications for those programs,” Vermeire said. “He most recently has encouraged and assisted me in applying for a Wentz Research Award and the Niblack Research Scholars program.”

Vermeire received a Niblack Research Scholars program scholarship for the 2022-23 academic year.

“I was apprehensive at first because I was not sure I would be able to produce a good application, but he convinced me I could and helped me to get my application to that caliber,” Vermeire said.

Cheng can help his students because of his relationship with the BIMB department, the Ferguson College of Agriculture and OSU.

“When I chose to come to OSU, I chose my ideal university,” Cheng said. “I was looking for my future home. I needed a place with the right resources and support for my research.

“After interacting with the OSU Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology and the Ferguson College of Agriculture, I realized they had all the resources I would need for my project. They have been so supportive of me, my research, my teaching and my transition to OSU.”

Cheng has created a cohesive environment in his lab, which benefits both the students and the research, Vermeire said.

Cheng’s research has the potential to have a global impact, Gustafson said. Understanding tuberculosis and its interactions within an infected host could help develop a new vaccine or drug therapy, Gustafson said.

At the same time, his individual attention to students shows he cares about them, too, Kotey said. His patience and willingness to teach encourages students to strive for their best levels of success, Kotey added.

“He gives me a lot of encouragement, which is something you do not really get from many principle investigators,” Kotey said. “Most are just concerned with getting data. Not only is Cheng interested in getting the data, but also he has a soft spot for his students’ development. It goes hand-in-hand for him.”


Understanding Research

Tuberculosis remains one of the world’s most fatal infectious diseases. The causative agent of TB, Mycobacterium tuberculosis, has infected 23% of the world population and will result in 9 million new cases and 1.4 million deaths a year.

However, about 5% to 10% of infected individuals will develop active TB during their lifetime. Scientists still do not understand how mycobacterial infections cause TB or how natural immunity occurs.

Yong Cheng’s research focuses on host-pathogen interactions in an effort to understand the molecular and cellular mechanisms of Mycobacterium tuberculosis. With this knowledge, Cheng said he hopes to aid in the development of novel drug treatments and vaccines to combat TB. Developing knowledge about mycobacterial infections and TB could provide knowledge that will help scientists better understand bacteria-associated diseases such as those found in patients with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and cystic fibrosis.

— Information provided by the OSU Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.


Story By: Braden Payne | Cowboy Journal

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