MIL-OSI Security: NMRC Heritage Month Highlight: Ning Yang

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Source: United States Navy (Medical)

The scientific efforts of Naval Medical Research Command (NMRC) are supported by dedicated teams of staff who oversee the logistical, financial and legal requirements of the command’s operations. As Asian American, Native Hawaiian, and Pacific Islander Heritage Month Draws to a close, NMRC takes a moment to recognize a key member of the command’s Research Support Directorate, Ning Yang.

As an Intellectual Property (IP) attorney and counsel for the command, Yang is a key part of the command’s activities, ensuring the protection of intellectual property that allows scientists to do work on behalf of Service member health, and helping the enterprise transfer technology for medical research. She is a first-generation immigrant from China, the world’s second-most populous country, following India, and the third-largest country in the world by land area.

Yang comes from a family of scientists. Both of her parents are physicists, and her brother, a PhD in biology, went to a medical school while he lived in China.

“My family makes full use of having a lawyer in the family,” Yang joked. “My parents will hold on to all their legal paperwork and mail for when I visit, and have me look at it. They’ll label it ‘Ning’s pile’ My brother has his own business, and while I don’t represent him, or give him legal advice, I help him understand things he might not know himself.”

Yang initially followed this family path into STEM, graduating in 1999 from the University of Maryland with bachelor’s degrees in biological science, with a physiology/ neurobiology concentration and in bioresearch engineering.

While applying for graduate school, Yang was offered a research assistantship by one of her professors.

“I worked with him for two years,” Yang recalled. “During that time, I encountered a neighbor who was a graduate in chemical engineering from Yale, and had become a patent attorney.”

In 2001, Yang began her legal studies at the American University Washington College of Law (AUWCL), in Washington, D.C. She chose AUWCL for its International Law program, but quickly decided the political aspects of the law didn’t interest her.

“It wasn’t in my blood,” Yang said. “I’m a scientist, and I always wanted to make use of my science degree. For patent law, it’s not enough to just have a law degree. It requires an additional qualification. The attorney must pass the patent bar, which makes it unique among legal practices, similar to maritime law.”

Yang completed and successfully defended her master’s thesis in Biological Resource Engineering during her first year as a full-time law student.

“I was ready to throw away my thesis at one point,” Yang recalls. “But my mom told me, ‘you can’t waste two years of your life.’”

Coming from a STEM background, Yang described undergoing a culture shock with her law classes at AUWCL, where she studied under a number of professors, including current Maryland congressman, Jamie Raskin, then a Constitutional Law instructor at AUWCL. Raskin currently represents Maryland’s 8th district, which encompasses the current location of NMRC’s headquarters, in Silver Spring.

“It was a completely different way of thinking,” Yang explained. “People would come to class ready to do all their arguing on their feet, without having done any of the assigned readings. In engineering, if you raised your hand to say you hadn’t done the reading, the professor would say ‘well maybe you should step outside and analyze it, and then come back.’”

“But they all write beautifully,” Ning added. “That was another transition I needed to make coming from a science background, where you write in passive tense. But in law, everything must be strong, and active.”

At the time, Yang noted a disparity in the racial makeup of the law classes at AUWCL.

“There were a lot of female students, but there were not many Asian students,” Yang said. “In the legal field then, Asians were only about 2% of the attorney population. I remember working with immigration lawyers, and it was entirely white men in the field, with native-speaking Chinese assistants. You would just have to trust them, even though they might not speak the same language as the people they are working with.”

After graduation, Yang worked for a small law firm in Virginia, working on food and drug law. In October of 2006, Yang joined NMRC.

For Yang, NMRC has been a good fit, suited to her science and patent legal education, and located close to home. She expressed an enthusiasm for building an expertise in the Navy Medicine Research & Development enterprise’s body of work, from undersea medicine and infectious disease to medical technology development and surveillance.

“The research here is so unique,” Yang explained. “When you hear Naval medical research, you think of ONR, and the hospital ships, like Mercy and Comfort. You think treatment facilities, not research. But you need people who study all the health concerns that make the Navy different from the Army or the Air Force.”

Protecting Navy IP is a significant part of Yang’s job, and one mandated by law. Protection of Navy Medicine’s IP is not only important to develop the technologies that safeguard service member health, but also ensures the enterprise is able to conduct research using the processes its scientists have developed.

“Understanding the science has helped a lot. At other places your co-workers might just see you as legal – as an obstacle or a bottleneck. Here, I really feel like everyone sees me as a colleague. Not a law firm working with a client, but in-house counsel people can trust and come to when they have a problem that needs to be worked out.”

Since graduating, Yang expressed that she has seen great strides for representation of Asian Americans in the legal field.

“Now I have friends who face legal issues, and can find attorneys who can speak to them, or to their parents, directly because they are Chinese themselves. It’s very useful for cases where specific cultural values apply. The representation in the field is up too – six or seven percent of practicing attorneys are Asian, matching the U.S. demographic. There are still not a lot of Asian Americans in management positions, but I think that will come in time, as junior people get into senior positions, and you build a base.”

“That’s how you break ground,” Yang added. “And people recognize you not for your skin or race or gender, but for you, because they see your competence. You can fight back against prejudice, not just with your words, but by demonstrating your capabilities.”

Yang also expressed appreciation for the perspectives she has gained from her dual education and career in STEM and the humanities.

“The legal profession changes your personality,” Yang said. “Sometimes I feel like the stereotypical Asian – too shy to challenge, being of an ‘oh, just let it go’ mindset. After you got to law school, there’s a mentality you gain about right and wrong, and makes you more inclined to speak up when you see something that doesn’t seem right. At the start of the COVID pandemic, I would be yelled at for my race. Before I got into law, I would probably have rolled up my window and stayed quiet. Now, I’m inclined to roll down my window and speak up for myself, so the next person doesn’t have to go through it.”

“You feel a sense of duty, with all your legal training,” She added. “If I don’t speak up, how can I expect others who don’t understand the law to properly speak up for themselves? How can you expect people with no connections or knowledge to defend themselves?”

Throughout Asian American, Native Hawaiian, and Pacific Islander Heritage month NMRC aims to recognize the contributions of our sailors, scientists and civilian personnel with roots in countries and cultures with diverse heritage.

Story originally posted on DVIDS: NMRC Heritage Month Highlight: Ning Yang 

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