Allison Brashear and Zhen Yan.

Zhen Yan, PhD, right, accepts the 2023 Stockton Kimball Award from Allison Brashear, MD, MBA, during a June 14 awards ceremony at the Jacobs School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences building.

Leading Neuroscientist Yan Wins Stockton Kimball Award

By Dirk Hoffman

Published June 16, 2023

Zhen Yan, PhD, SUNY Distinguished Professor of physiology and biophysics, and an acclaimed neuroscientist, has received the 2023 Stockton Kimball Award for outstanding scientific achievement and service.

“Her work is not only of the highest scientific caliber, it is also of great significance from the dual standpoints of biology and medicine. ”
Senior associate dean for faculty affairs

Yan’s research is aimed at discovering the pathophysiological mechanisms and treatment strategies for brain disorders, particularly the role of synaptic and epigenetic aberrations in autism, stress-linked neuropsychiatric disorders and Alzheimer’s disease.

“Her work is not only of the highest scientific caliber, it is also of great significance from the dual standpoints of biology and medicine,” said Suzanne G. Laychock, PhD, senior associate dean of faculty affairs, in announcing the award.

Initiates Innovative Studies of Brain Disorders

Yan’s primary emphasis over the years has been on how the glutamatergic (excitatory) and GABAergic (inhibitory) synaptic transmission are regulated by various neuromodulators, including disease susceptibility genes, stress hormones and monoamines, in the prefrontal cortex of the brain — an area responsible for emotional and cognitive control.  

Her studies utilize a combination of electrophysiological, biochemical and molecular biological approaches, and disease models to understand the pathologies of certain aberrant pathways in disease processes. In recent years, her research is focused on how epigenetic abnormality caused by genetic and environmental factors results in pathological gene alterations, leading to synaptic dysfunction and behavioral deficits related to brain disorders.

“Zhen has established herself as an outstanding, innovative, experimental neurophysiologist who brings state-of-the-art techniques to bear on fundamental issues of mental health and disease, using a spectrum of approaches including behavioral models, stem cell therapy, genetic manipulation, and single cell electrophysiology,” Laychock said. “Her studies have been groundbreaking, seminal and highly cited.”

Yan has published more than 170 peer-reviewed articles, many of which are on top-tier journals in the biomedical field.

Yan has made important advances delineating the genes and molecular mechanisms underlying human neurological disorder using animal models and pluripotent stem cells. Her newest forays into autism neuropharmacology and the epigenetic aspects of Alzheimer’s disease are providing exciting new insights, Laychock noted.

“It is tempting to rely upon quantitative measures to in part characterize the achievements of Dr. Yan that places her in the top 3 percent among molecular and cellular neurobiologists of her generation,” she said.

Yan’s overall career total grant awards as principal investigator amount to about $29 million (including 12 National Institutes of Health (NIH) R01 grants), with consistent funding since her appointment.

Extraordinary Research, Scholarship Honored

Yan joined the faculty at the University at Buffalo in the summer of 2000 after completing her postdoctoral training at the Rockefeller University with Paul Greengard, PhD (2000 Nobel laureate). She has received significant recognition for her research and scholarship.

From 1999-2001, Yan held the National Alliance for Research on Schizophrenia and Depression (NARSAD) Young Investigator Award, which was followed in 2004-2006 by the NARSAD Independent Investigator Award.

In 2002, UB selected Yan for the Exceptional Scholar – Young Investigator Achievement Award; this was followed in 2012 with her being awarded the Exceptional Scholar – Sustained Achievement Award.

The Jacobs School selected Yan for recognition with The George W. Thorn Young Investigator Award in 2006, in recognition of outstanding creative scientific achievement which is widely recognized in the field for a faculty member less than 45 years old. The award is only bestowed when a candidate of extraordinary credentials has been identified —  Yan is only the second person to receive the George W. Thorn Young Investigator Award in the history of the Jacobs School.

Yan was also recognized in 2011 with membership in the American College of Neuropsychopharmacology, the nation’s premier professional society in brain, behavior, and psychopharmacology research.

Yan was invited to serve as a regular member on NIH study sections for 10 years (2009-2021). She is also a grant reviewer for funding agencies of many countries. 

In 2013, Yan’s exceptional efforts were rewarded with the SUNY Chancellor’s Award for Excellence in Scholarship and Creative Activities. In 2018, she was promoted to SUNY Distinguished Professor.

Her Trainees Have Won Prestigious Awards

Yan has contributed to the educational mission of the university with lectures in graduate courses and to professional students. She has been the primary adviser for more than 20 doctoral graduate students and master’s students, and over 30 postdoctoral fellows and research scholars.

Her trainees have been winners of prestigious NIH fellowships, Society for Neuroscience’s Trainee Professional Development Award, UB Excellence in Research, Scholarship and Creativity Awards, the Dean’s Award for Outstanding Dissertation Research, travel awards and more. Many of Yan’s former trainees have become lab heads in academia or researchers in pharmaceutical companies.

Yan is valued in the Jacobs School for her collaborative research and mentorship. She has also served on important committees for the department and school.

“Her ongoing pursuit of excellence in teaching, scientific research and service have enriched the intellectual environment and technological expertise here at the Jacobs School and UB,” Laychock said.

“Dr. Yan fulfills the criteria for the Stockton Kimball Award with a professional career of consistent academic accomplishment and recognition, identification with Buffalo of her accomplishments, concern for and contributions to the progress of UB and Jacobs School, and a career that exemplifies excellence in its broadest sense,” she added.

Award Honors Former Medical School Dean

Yan was recognized June 14 during the Jacobs School’s Faculty and Staff Recognition Awards celebration.

She will deliver the Stockton Kimball Lecture in 2024.

The award and lecture recognize an outstanding scholar and researcher who has also contributed significantly to the school. It is named in memory of Stockton Kimball, MD ’29, dean of the medical school from 1946 to 1958.