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Yi Rao is the Dean of Sciences at Peking University, a Chair Professor and the Founding Director of the PKU-IDG/McGovern Institute for Brain Research, the Founding Director of PKU-Tsinghua Center for Life Sciences, and the Founding Director of the Chinese Institute for Brain Research at Beijing.
Rao received medical and graduate training in China from 1978 to 1985. He obtained his PhD from the University of California at San Francisco in 1991 with a thesis on molecular and genetic analysis of cellular communication in Drosophila. He was a postdoctoral fellow at Harvard working on molecular mechanisms of neural development in amphibians. He was on the faculty of Washington University School of Medicine from 1994 to 2004 and Northwestern University School of Medicine from 2004 to 2007, where his lab worked on molecular and cellular basis of neural development, revealing the origin of two eyes in a single morphogenetic field, discovering the chemorepellent function of the Slit proteins in axon guidance and neuronal migration, and dissecting signal transduction mechanisms of the chemorepellent Slit and and chemoattractant Netrin. His lab has found conserved guidance mechanisms between neurons and leukocytes. In 2007, he returned to China as the Dean of the School of Life Sciences at Peking University. His lab currently investigates molecular and cellular mechanisms underlying behavior and cognition. Rao has proposed the concept of chemoconnectome (CCT) as the entire set of neurotransmitters, neuromodulators, neuropeptides and their receptors underlying chemical transmission in an animal. The Rao lab has invented the generally applicable chemoconnectomics approach and generated new genetic resources to study the functional roles of genes and cells in the CCT, to manipulate chemical transmission and to map neural circuits. In humans, they use genetics, genomics and functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to investigate genes and brain regions important in cognition. The Rao lab has carried out research with flies, frogs, mice, rats, monkeys and humans to understand fundamental mechanisms both those conserved among animals and those unique for humans.
Rao is instrumental in reforming and establishing several leading institutions of science and higher education in China. He assisted the establishment of the Institute of Neuroscience (ION) of the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Shanghai (1999) and participated in establishment of the National Institute for Biological Sciences (NIBS) in Beijing (2004). He was a co-founder or founder of the Shanghai Institute for Advanced Studies (2002), the Peking-Tsinghua Center for Life Sciences (2011), the PKU-IDG/McGovern Institute for Brain Research (2012) and the Chinese Institute for Brain Research, Beijing (2018). He is a co-founder of the Westlake University. He is a founding member of Scientific Committee of the Future Science Prize of China (2016), and a founder of the Xplorer Prize for Science and Technology of China (2018).
Rao teaches the course Concepts and Approaches in Biology (CAB), focusing on classic experiments in genetics from Mendel (1866), Miescher (1871), Morgan (1910), Griffith (1928), to Avery, MacLeod and McCarty (1944), in developmental biology from Roux (1888), Spemann and Mangold (1924), Lewis (1978) to Nusslein-Volhard and Wieschaus (1980), in neurochemistry from Bernard (1857), Langley (1901), Elliot (1905) to Dale (1910) and Loewi (1921), in electrophysiology from Adrian (1912), Hodgkin and Huxley (1939), Katz (1952), to Hubel and Wiesel (1962), and in immunology from Behring and Kitasato (1890), Ehrlich (1900), Owen (1945) to Burnet (1959).