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New Woese Undergraduate Research Scholar studying anticancer compound

Since his freshman year of college, Yuhao Min has been passionate about research.

Now a rising senior at the University of Illinois, he’s getting to pursue what he loves through IGB’s Carl R. Woese Undergraduate Research Scholarship.


Rising senior at the University of Illinois Yuhao Min, double major in chemistry and molecular and cellular biology, is studying anticancer compounds as newest Woese Undergraduate Research Scholar.

The scholarship awards funding to undergraduate students so they can pursue interdisciplinary research at IGB over the summer.

As this year’s recipient of the scholarship, Min is pursuing research with Huimin Zhao, Professor of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering and leader of the IGB Biosystems Design theme, and Wilfred van der Donk, Professor of Chemistry and member of the Mining Microbial Genomes theme.

Their collaborative research project is focused on engineering a peptidic anticancer compound.

Recently, there has been increased interest in using antimicrobial peptides as potential cancer therapeutics. Antimicrobial peptides are groups of molecules that are part of an organism’s innate immune system.

Min’s research is focused on nisin, a peptide that has been used as a food preservative, but also has a broad antimicrobial spectrum. It has been shown to be a potential therapeutic for treating cancers such as head and neck squamous cell carcinoma.

The project will work on engineering nisin as an effective anticancer agent. They aim to create variant DNA libraries by introducing mutations into nisin’s precursor gene. They then plan to isolate the nisin mutants that have improved anticancer activities through high-throughput screening, a common drug discovery method.

“We want to optimize this peptide, using the tools we developed before, to make it more potent, more stable, and more specific toward the cancer,” Min said.

Min first started working with Professor Zhao as a freshman, and since then he has worked on related biomedical research, as well as research that brings together perspectives from engineering, chemistry and biology.  

As a double major in chemistry and molecular and cellular biology, he finds himself fascinated by the interdisciplinary approaches that his research has taken.

“I find when you look into a problem from another perspective, you can always find some other solution to the specific problems,” he said.

He will continue this approach in his current research, which combines biology, chemistry and genetics.  

Min said he is looking forward to working on research full time.

“You can spend more time continuously on the project, so you don’t get distracted by classes — like in the middle of the experiment, having to go to class,” he said. “It’s much more productive than doing it during the school year.”

He believes this experience will help him improve his experimental skills and his ability to troubleshoot problems that arise in experiments.

“I enjoy tackling these problems and being able to come up with solutions,” Min said. “I feel really happy for that, and at the same time, this will also help other researchers and perhaps the world, in some way. It’s very meaningful.”

One day, Min hopes to be a physician-scientist, and he sees this program as getting him one step closer to achieving that goal.

“I’m so happy. It’s been an honor to be awarded this program,” he said. “I believe this scholarship will help facilitate my future, and it will help me achieve my career goals. I will get a lot more information and techniques for my future.”

Written By: 
Emily Scott. Photo courtesy of Yuhao Min.
Date Published: 
Thu, 06/08/2017 - 9:00am