University of South Florida

Cardiology specialist first to earn PhD from USF Health Heart Institute program

Scientific research is often a low-key exercise, with fastidious people peering into microscopes and working under the radar. Seldom are they described as rising stars, but Jiajia Yang may have broken the mold.

This month, Dr. Yang became the first person to earn a PhD from USF through a new degree program within the newly opened USF Health Heart Institute.

The 30-year-old earned her degree in medical sciences from the USF Health Morsani College of Medicine, with a focus on heart disease, specifically genetic arrhythmia and cardiomyopathy gene mutations within a family.

The Heart Institute is housed within the new Morsani College of Medicine + Heart Institute building in the Water Street Tampa district of downtown Tampa. The facility, which also includes the MD degree program, opened in January 2020.

“You can’t imagine how excited I am,’’ Dr. Yang said of her degree and new career. “The most exciting part for me is that our research is really translational for patients. This isn’t just bedside to bench, but bench to bedside.’’

Originally from a small village in rural China, Dr. Yang attended medical school in Shanghai, then won a scholarship in 2015 at Descartes University in Paris. While there, she earned her Masters and learned to speak French ─ adding to her verbal portfolio of Chinese and English.

Dr. Thomas McDonald with Dr. Jiajia Yang.

After a year, she accepted a position as a research assistant at the USF Health Morsani College of Medicine and quickly showed promise as a fast and inquisitive learner, said Thomas McDonald, MD, professor in the Department of Molecular Pharmacology & Physiology. He would later work with Dr. Yang on a variety of heart-related research projects, including the role of patient-specific induced pluripotent stem cells.

“This is all technically difficult and she overcame so many obstacles,’’ Dr. McDonald said. “She really laid the ground work to help this take off.’’

During her time at USF, Dr. Yang published five research papers in peer-reviewed journals, including new findings on using patient-specific stem cells to study disease in human tissue.

“That had not been on the map at USF until now,’’ Dr. McDonald said. “Jiajia’s papers were the first.’’

Dr. Yang wasn’t shy about sharing her love for discovery.

“I don’t think I’ve ever run across anyone as enthusiastic about her work,’’ Dr. McDonald added. “She was literally jumping up and down in the hallways screaming (about the stem cells) ‘They’re beating! They’re beating!’ Her enthusiasm was contagious.’’

Armed with her degree, Dr. Yang accepted a job as resident physician in internal medicine at the University of New Mexico School of Medicine in Albuquerque. She expects to be there at least three years, but could stay longer if needed: Heart disease is the leading cause of death in New Mexico, according to the state’s Department of Health. When not working, Dr. Yang will devote time to her other passions: cooking, hiking and biking, tennis, and working out at the gym.

Dr. McDonald expects big things from his former colleague, and has no reservations about asking her to return to Tampa: “I’d like to see her career blossom and recruit her to come back to USF.’’

For more on the USF Heart Institute, visit:

Written by Kurt Loft

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