Yabing Chen, Ph.D., is the first researcher at the Birmingham VA to receive this highest honor for a non-physician scientist.Yabing Chen, Ph.D., is the first researcher at the Birmingham VA to receive this highest honor for a non-physician scientist.
(Photography: Nik Layman)

In 2016, Yabing Chen, Ph.D., a University of Alabama at Birmingham professor of pathology and research scientist at the Birmingham VA Medical Center, received a prestigious VA Research Career Scientist Award that provided five years of salary. 

Now she has taken an even larger step — a Senior Research Career Scientist Award from the Department of Veterans Affairs that will give her seven more years of salary support. 

These senior-level awards recognize VA health services researchers who are international leaders in their field, and only those who have been a research career scientist for at least five years can advance to the senior level.

“Chen is the first researcher at the Birmingham VA to receive this highest honor for a non-physician scientist,” said Louis Dell’Italia, M.D., associate chief of staff for Research at the Birmingham VA Medical Center and a professor emeritus in the UAB School of Medicine Division of Cardiovascular Disease.

Chen’s research focuses on major health burdens that include vascular calcification and stiffness, vascular aging, and vascular contribution to cognitive impairments. In detail, this includes studies of what molecular mechanisms of vascular smooth cell phenotypic modulation and reprogramming are at work during the pathogenesis of vascular disease, vascular calcification in atherosclerosis (colloquially called hardening of the arteries), arterial stiffness, diabetic vasculopathy and vascular aging. Her work has garnered continuous funding from the National Institutes of Health and the American Heart Association since coming to UAB in 2004.

Chen’s ongoing VA-funded research seeks to uncover the molecular mechanisms underlying vascular complications in diabetes, an important health problem for veterans and non-veterans alike. 

Chen’s research discoveries in the areas of the reprogramming of vascular cells and the crosstalk between vascular cells in the development of arteriosclerosis have shed new lights on vascular calcification and aging.

Among Chen’s intriguing discoveries are:

  • Her notable Circulation Research report that gave the first genetic proof for the key role of an osteogenic transcriptional factor, Runx2, in regulating calcification of smooth muscle cells.
  • Her Circulation Research finding of a novel mechanism in diabetes underlying the role of protein-O-GlcNAC modification in promoting vascular calcification.
  • The role of dietary potassium in regulating vascular calcification in atherosclerosis. Thisdiscovery has uncovered a potential dietary intervention for vascular calcification, and it has been highlighted by the NIH and featured in multiple news outlets, including Newsweek, Science Daily and USA Today.

Chen has published more than 70 papers in high-impact, peer-reviewed journals, and she received a Vascular Biology Special Recognition Award in 2018 from the American Heart Association for her outstanding contribution to vascular biology research.  

Chen values collaboration. Besides Dell’Italia, she has worked with UAB researchers Anupam Agarwal, M.D., Paul Sanders, M.D., John Chatham, Ph.D., Xinyang Zhao, Ph.D., Gangjian Qin, Ph.D., Martin Young, Ph.D., Jeonga Kim, Ph.D., and Zechen Chong, Ph.D. These diverse colleagues variously represent the UAB Department of Medicine’s divisions of NephrologyCardiovascular Disease, and Endocrinology, Diabetes and Metabolism, as well as the UAB departments of Pathology, Biomedical EngineeringGenetics, and Biochemistry and Molecular Genetics.

Her dedication to teaching and mentoring has been recognized by a UAB Graduate School Dean’s Award for Excellence in Mentorship and a UAB School of Medicine Dean’s Excellence Award for Mentorship. At UAB, Chen holds the Jay M. McDonald, M.D., Endowed Professorship in Laboratory Medicine.

Chen earned her undergraduate degree at Fudan University, Shanghai, and her Ph.D. at Xiamen University, Xiamen, China. Chen joined the UAB Department of Pathology in 2004 and was promoted to associate professor in 2010 and professor in 2014. Chen also earned an MBA degree at the University of Vermont during her postdoctoral training.