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Malin Young in front of grey backdrop

Biochemist alumna named 2019 AAAS Fellow

By Tamara Cissna
Malin Young, alumna and biochemist

Malin Young (’92, ’94), an Oregon State University alumna and biochemist, was elected a 2019 Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) in recognition of her extraordinary achievements in advancing science.

AAAS is the world’s largest general scientific society and publisher of the journal Science. Young is among 416 AAAS members elected this year, including College of Science professors Michael FreitagDavid Maddison and Mas Subramanian.

Young, who leads the science and technology strategy at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL), was honored for her contributions to computational biology and her leadership in developing and executing research and development strategies and programs in national security and energy.

In nominating her, Young’s peers noted her passion for science and translating it into societal impact. They also pointed to her strong leadership skills and ability to form strategic alliances that have enabled her to advance science.

When she received the notice, Young said she was thrilled. “It is such an honor to have my work recognized by my peers – their acknowledgment of the impact I’ve been able to make growing very talented teams at the national laboratories and leading large-scale research programs.”

Young earned a bachelor’s degree in biology and a master’s degree in genetics from OSU, and a doctorate in pharmaceutical chemistry from the University of California, San Francisco.

“The opportunity to be free to explore a non-traditional track of coursework at OSU laid the groundwork for the rest of my career.”

OSU played a pivotal role in shaping Young’s distinguished career. The fields of biology science and computer science were not yet connected when she was earning her bachelor’s degree. But her OSU advisor Joe Beatty, now an emeritus professor in the Department of Integrative Biology, encouraged her to explore her interest in both fields and to take computer science classes along with the bioscience courses for her major.

“That led to me moving into computational biology and chemistry as a researcher,” said Young. “The opportunity to be free to explore a nontraditional track of coursework at OSU laid the groundwork for the rest of my career.”

As Deputy Director for Science and Technology, Young oversees PNNL’s science and technology capabilities to address large-scale challenges in science, energy, the environment and national security. She oversees the national laboratory’s institutional science and technology investments, business capture and proposal management, strategic partnerships and technology commercialization.

She is an expert in rational drug design, bioinformatics, mass-spectrometry data analysis, and protein-structure prediction and modeling. She has published more than 30 peer-reviewed papers and has three patents.

Before moving to PNNL, Young was director of the Biological and Engineering Sciences Center at the Sandia National Laboratories’ Livermore, Calif. campus. Helping to establish and grow bioscience programs was a career highlight for her. She and a small team started at the ground floor and created a program that grew to about a $40 million program with approximately 140 researchers over the course of 15 years.

“That was a remarkable journey – being able to see it come to together from the very beginning and grow into a really exciting and impactful program that delivered all kinds of research on behalf of sponsors as diverse as the Department of Energy to the National Institutes of Health the Department of Defense and the Department of Homeland Security,” she said.

Young attributes much of her success to her mentors, noting her good fortune in being well-supported throughout her path.

“I grew up with two supportive parents who encouraged me to pursue my interest in science and told me that there were no limits to what I could accomplish,” said Young. “Then I was further supported every step along the way – from elementary school where I had fantastic teachers who kept encouraging me to stay in STEM through middle school where I had teachers who were willing to work with me on after-class science projects.”

Science is a creative endeavor

At the advice of Beatty, her OSU advisor, Young pursued an NSF Research Experiences for Undergraduates grant. The award enabled Young to apply computer programming to do forest fire regime modeling over a summer. That experience deepened her interest in using computers to do scientific modeling.

“When the model I created did accurately explain the data, it was such a thrilling moment of discovery – that maybe I’ve learned something new about the world.”

While coding is viewed by some as purely computational, mathematical and perhaps even tedious, Young’s experience suggests otherwise. Science is ultimately a creative endeavor, she said.

“First, you explore the boundaries of what’s known,” Young explains. “Then you come up with explanations to fit what you’ve observed in the world around you. And that engages the creative mind to develop models that fit the data you’re collecting.”

In the computational biology and chemistry space, Young said she would develop ideas that could potentially explain the phenomena and then encode them into the software, and then test that.

“So even the writing of the code I was developing was a creative process – almost like writing a book,” she said. “I understood the story I needed to tell in the programming language I was using, and it needed to all work together.

“And when the model I created did accurately explain the data, it was such a thrilling moment of discovery – that maybe I’ve learned something new about the world.”

Making a positive impact in the world

Young said she has long been passionate about translating science into societal impact.

“A big part of my decision to go from the university environment to the national labs was the fact that at the national labs you work as a member of an interdisciplinary team, typically on really challenging science or engineering problems – many of which address national challenges,” she said.

Young and other researchers in Sandia’s biology program, for example, worked on developing medical diagnostic devices that could rapidly measure biomarkers of disease, and on converting agro-biomass or cellulosic biomass into biofuels that could be used for transportation needs. “That work was satisfying to me because I do want the science I’m involved with to make a difference in the world,” Young said.

As a prominent female leader in science, Young knows she overcame long odds. While today there is acknowledgment in the science community that including diverse viewpoints in scientific discussion sparks more creativity, aspiring women scientists still face an uphill climb.

“There are barriers all along the pipeline for women and underrepresented minorities – going all the way from kindergarten through advanced degree programs,” Young explains.

“A lot of people are paying attention to each one of those phases, and it will take time to see if any of the strategies will result in a measurable difference. We just have to remain committed to it over the long haul.”

Young encourages fellow female scientists to make their voices heard. “It is important for us as women to have confidence in ourselves, to speak up and represent our points of view,” she said.

Young was introduced as a new fellow during the AAAS annual meeting in Washington, D.C., an occasion that marked Young’s significant societal contributions that began with a pure passion for science.

In Young’s current role, she no longer engages in bench research, but she still celebrates others’ “aha!” moments – those she now mentors. “I get so much satisfaction learning what the great people in the science program here discover. I can see how excited they are, how intellectually engaged they are – and there’s a lot of joy in that,” said Young.

“I’ve always enjoyed learning things, and every day I get that thrill to a certain degree. I feel that my mind is always expanding and I am learning more.”