Written by Christina Crowe

artboard 1In this series, we spotlight several researchers in the Department of Pathology who hold endowed professorships and, in one case, a chair. We recognize each of these individuals for his or her dedication to and innovation in their respective fields of study.

The second individual we focus on in our series of researchers holding endowments is Yabing Chen, Ph.D. M.B.A. Dr. Chen is a Professor in the Division of Molecular & Cellular Pathology at UAB Pathology. She is senior scientist with the O’Neal Comprehensive Cancer Center, Center for Aging, Comprehensive Diabetes Center, Center for Free Radical Biology, the Nephrology Research Training Center, and the Nutrition Obesity Research Center. She is a Senior Research Career Scientist at the Birmingham VA Medical Center.

Yabing Chen, Ph.D., MBA, FAHA, Professor and Vice Chair for Faculty Development and Education, UAB Pathology, has a very personal story about the endowment she holds, the Jay M. McDonald Endowed Chair in Laboratory Medicine. If it were not for Dr. McDonald, she might not have come to UAB in the first place.

Yabing Chen

Chen first visited UAB when her husband, Hui Wu, Ph.D., now a Professor of Integrative Biosciences and Associate Dean for Research, Oregon Health & Science University School of Dentistry, was being recruited to UAB. They were living in Burlington, Vermont, at the time, and Chen sent her resume to three department chairs with hopes of finding a job. Former UAB Pathology department chair Jay McDonald, M.D., responded quickly with an invitation to visit the department.

McDonald told Chen, a researcher with a background in cancer biology who had conducted cardiovascular research as a postdoc, he could use her help in renewing a Veteran’s Administration grant he had at the time, looking at tumors. Chen, who studied smooth muscle cells at that time but did her Ph.D. research in cancer biology, thought there might be a good opportunity to combine her past experiences.

“He said, ‘Why don’t you come back tomorrow and we’ll discuss further the possibility,’” of them working together, she recalls. She did, and also met with then-division director Dr. Tom Clemens and other faculty. That evening, she got a call asking her to stop by McDonald’s office before she left town the next day.

“By the time I got there he handed me an offer letter of intent as a research assistant professor working with him,” she says. “I basically signed it even though the position was not yet open. I was very happy and did not realize at that time it was the beginning of such a rewarding journey here at UAB.”

That was in 2004, and 15 years later, Chen was recognized with an endowed professorship in McDonald’s name in 2019. This year, the endowment was elevated to the Jay M. McDonald Endowed Chair in Laboratory Medicine that continuously supports Chen.

“Dr. Chen’s exemplary career in research and education embodies the spirit of excellence that the Jay M. McDonald Endowed Chair in Laboratory Medicine is all about,” says George Netto, M.D., Robert and Ruth Anderson Endowed Chair, UAB Pathology.

Chen began working with McDonald as an assistant professor in 2004, and the pair worked well together, having similar approaches to research and organization.

“He was very serious about his research and always welcomed creative and innovative ideas.  I’m a very organized person and made sure I always had everything prepared,” she says. “Also, I respond quickly to things, but always check my facts. He’d always ask for proof if I challenged him on something. It was really a good working relationship.”

McDonald handed the VA grant renewal over to Chen, who submitted it and got it funded, “right away.”

“He said, ‘This is all yours, do with it what you want,’” she recalls. “I also had my own grant from the American Heart Association, so it was like working on two full-time jobs.”

When McDonald stepped down as chair in 2008, he and Chen were still collaborating on one of his VA grants. Kevin Roth, M.D., took over as chair of the department and promoted Chen to a tenure-earning position, she then quickly moved up the ranks to Associate professor in 2010, and full Professor in 2014.

McDonald continued working with her on research for another decade, she says, visiting her and her lab when he was in town, serving as a reviewer on papers and grants she planned to submit.

“He was always very a critical reviewer,” Chen says. “We had a good mentoring interaction,” she says, “not just in science, but also I observed how he was very dedicated. He was at the office at least six days a week, from 7am to 7 pm—he was always there.”

McDonald and his wife, Sarah, first created an endowed professorship in the department, the Jay M. McDonald Endowed Professorship in Bone Pathobiology, approved in 2010, honoring his leadership and innovation in the Bone Research Program at UAB.

When the McDonalds created a second endowment in 2015, the Jay M. McDonald Endowed Professorship in Laboratory Medicine, he showed Chen the draft resolution, and she says she was not at all surprised and very thankful by their ongoing generous support of the department.

“He always cared about recruitment, and he sincerely cared about this department and the faculty. Even right before his passing on June 5, 2019, he was still thinking about the department, UAB and his colleagues. I was one of many fortunate ones who was trained and impacted by him.” Chen continues, “I was fortunate to know and to work closely with Dr. McDonald, and am now honored to hold the endowed position in his name.”

McDonald Yabing and Hui 09302088Dr. Yabing Chen, center, with her husband Hui Wu, left, and Jay M. McDonald, right, at McDonald's retirement party

“Yabing is a delightful young woman,” says Sarah McDonald. “I know Jay supported her greatly in her career.”

In 2016, Chen received a prestigious Research Career Scientist Award from the Department of Veterans Affairs in recognition of her outstanding scientific accomplishments and contributions to VA research and development. In 2021, she took an even larger step, receiving a VA Senior Research Career Scientist Award, which recognizes VA health services researchers who are international leaders in their field—the highest honor for a non-physician scientist at the VA. Chen also received the prestigous “Vascular Biology Special Recognition Award” from the American Heart Association’s Council on Atherosclerosis, Thrombosis and Vascular Biology in 2018 for her outstanding contribution to the vascular biology research. 

Chen’s work has garnered continuous funding from the National Institutes of Health, the VA and the American Heart Association since coming to UAB in 2004.

“Over years, Dr. McDonald became a role model who challenged me and inspired me not only to excel in my research, but also to care and help people around me,” Chen says. “I learned a great deal from him and there remains a kind of pressure on me—I want to do things right, for the department and for people around me. I promised I would make him proud.”