Di Yu is Chair in Paediatric Immunotherapy and a Professor of Immunology at the University of Queensland in Brisbane, Australia, where he has led the Systems and Translational Immunology Laboratory (STIL) since 2019. He is on the editorial board of Communications Medicine, which has just celebrated its first anniversary.
Before joining the Faculty of Medicine at the University of Queensland, Prof. Yu was a faculty member at Monash University (2011-2016) and Australian National University (2017-2019). He earned his PhD in 2007 from Australian National University and conducted his postdoctoral research at the Garvan Institute of Medical Research.
Prof. Yu’s research focuses on the role of T cells in immunity - a topic that has become of particular interest since the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic. His group studies the role of T cells in infection, autoimmunity and cancer with a special interest in how this knowledge can be used to improve personalized disease treatments and immunotherapy.
Can you share how you first became interested in immunology?
My undergraduate major was life sciences with immunology as an elective I chose. Immunology was, indeed, so complicated and probably the most difficult subject in my undergraduate study, but it was so cool.
How has the COVID-19 pandemic impacted your research?
People always know the immune system is essential to protect us from diseases., while COVID-19 has been an education for many who became aware of the difference in immunity among individuals. For example, most people only develop mild symptoms of COVID-19 but a small group become very ill. For vaccination, many people respond effectively but some don’t. One key area of my research is to apply “systems immunology” approaches to understand why individuals mount diverse immune responses, a question highlighted by COVID-19.
What do you think is the most exciting current development in the field of T cell biology?
I would say the most exciting development is how to translate the knowledge of T cell biology into new immunotherapies for human diseases. Immunologists had gained an enormous amount of knowledge of T cell biology before they realised the power of the translation of such knowledge into breakthrough immunotherapies, such as immune checkpoint inhibition therapies for cancer. Many immunologists including myself are asking: how can we innovate new immunotherapies based on existing and emerging knowledge of T cell biology?
What would you say are the main challenges you’ve had to overcome in your career?
One main challenge of becoming an independent scientist and leading a research team is to decide on the (new) research direction and choose research projects. The cost of mistakes could have ruined my career. But at the same time, the freedom of research is also full of opportunities that I would love to embrace.
I have had several career mentors who I met at different stages of my career. I consult one or more for major career developments, including choosing my research direction. Such consultancy has been beneficial in key steps, such as the transition to being an independent researcher.
Do you have any advice for early-career researchers considering an academic career?
I see many scientists with successful academic careers are those who understand research is a competitive activity, but with the spirit of collaboration.
How do you go about establishing collaborations?
I am in general pretty open-minded when engaging with other scientists and discussing research. For deeply engaged collaborations beyond just sharing reagents, I usually seek those with strengths complementary to my own research. It often takes a step-by-step approach to examine synergy, feasibility and match that are required to establish deep collaborations. Once the trust has been built up, it can lead to idea-provoking conversations and productive collaboration.
You have recently joined the board of Communications Medicine - is this your first experience as a journal editor? What motivated you to become a journal editor and how has the experience been so far?
Before joining Communications Medicine, I was and still am a deputy editor for Clinical & Translational Immunology. There are many reasons to become a journal editor, from the interest in a specific research topic to the responsibility of contributing to the research community. The experience has been great, learning a lot and feeling my contribution. The only downside is the extra time commitment on top of the shoulders already overloaded.
What is one thing you wish you had known when you first started out in your career?
My passion for research is about the unknown. For a career, confronting an unknown future sometimes makes it intriguing, just be prepared. We often learn when it is time to learn.
What is your favorite part of living in Australia?
There are diverse cultures from different origins in Australia and the diversity is usually well respected.
Follow Prof. Di Yu on Twitter @YUmmunology