Yaotian Zhang

Yaotian ZhangYaotian Zhang is currently a junior at Brandeis University from Shenzhen, China, pursuing a dual B.S./M.S. in Biochemistry. The Biochemistry program is regarded as one of the most difficult courses of study at Brandeis. Yaotian was accepted to this exclusive program after applying during his sophomore year. Students in the dual B.S./M.S. Biochemistry program must take extra graduate level courses and conduct independent research, all within the same four-year time frame as other undergraduates.

Yaotian’s parents both studied physics and he always knew that he wanted to be a scientist. He became interested in biochemistry in high school and focused his college search on universities with excellent programs, ultimately deciding on Brandeis. Three years into his studies, Yaotian is very happy with his choice. He has been particularly impressed by the faculty to student ratio and the opportunities to conduct research and work in labs. Yaotian states that, “in comparison with other universities, Brandeis has a low ratio of faculty to students, which means the attention individual students will get is higher at Brandeis than other institutions.”

Yaotian is a Gateway Scholar and he is very proud of that. Yaotian says: “It was pretty hard for me at first because I wasn’t trained the way I was here. The way of teaching and interactions between people were really different.” Gradually, however, Yaotian began to acclimate to the United States and now feels much more comfortable at Brandeis. Yaotian believes the seven-week Gateway Summer Program helped him adjust to the United States before he began his fall semester at Brandeis because it gave him a preview of what his classes would be like. Yaotian says, “If I’m going to swim in cold water, Gateway was like splashing cold water on my body before I actually go in.”

Yaotian remembers that the Gateway courses were challenging because he never read analytically before. However, the skills he learned in Gateway would be extremely useful to him during his studies at Brandeis. “The ability to read analytically helped me through Composition and UWS,” Yaotian says. The analytical and critical thinking skills Yaotian learned in Gateway helped him in more than just his classes, though. They also helped him think critically about his experiences as an international student and his interactions with people from diverse backgrounds in the United States. Yaotian explains: “When you’re talking to people or see something that someone writes to you, you will analyze what they are actually trying to say and extract the underlying meaning from the interaction.” Now that he is living and studying in a country very different than the one he grew up in, Yaotian believes this is a necessary skill to cultivate in order to succeed in the United States.

During the Gateway Summer Program, Yaotian often went to his instructors’ office hours to receive individual feedback. Yaotian says that during the office hours, “I was able to ask questions that focused on my own issues, rather than the general issues. Office hours are different in China. Here it’s more relaxed, it’s more like a conversation between two people that are equal.” As a junior, Yaotian still goes to his professors’ office hours. “After Gateway, I had an idea of how it worked,” says Yaotian. Yaotian studied hard during Gateway, and recommends that future Gateway Scholars do the same, and he also encourages future Scholars to interact with as many people as they can. Yaotian served as a Gateway Mentor in 2016 to help incoming Gateway Scholar, and he plans to do so again soon.

While still a junior, Yaotian already has post-graduation plans. He wants to work in either the biotech or pharmaceutical industry for a few years and then earn a PhD in Bioengineering, with a focus on understanding human DNA. Yaotian has worked as an undergraduate researcher in Maria Pandelia’s lab at Brandeis since May 2017. This hands-on independent research experience will be very valuable when he graduates and starts looking for jobs. Yaotian believes that he may not have had so many independent research opportunities at another university compared to Brandeis University. Yaotian explains that in order to work in the STEM field, it’s critical that students gain lab experience. However, at larger universities, this can be difficult. Yaotian says: “The thing that I appreciate the most, compared to big schools, is that the competition of getting into a lab is less severe.” In addition to his research experience, the critical thinking and communication skills, which Yaotian began to develop during his Gateway courses, will be vital to his future success.