Following a national search, Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (Berkeley Lab) has named Junko Yano, known for her research in natural and artificial photosynthetic systems, Molecular Biophysics and Integrated Bioimaging (MBIB) Division Director.

In her 22-year career at the Lab, Yano has progressed from postdoctoral fellow to senior scientist. Since 2015, she has held leadership roles in the MBIB Division, first as head of the Bioenergetics Department, then as Deputy for Science, and most recently as Interim Director for the last two years. She has been a co-principal investigator in two DOE-funded Energy Innovation Hubs: the Liquid Sunlight Alliance (LiSA) since 2020 and the Joint Center for Artificial Photosynthesis for ten years prior to that.

“I am extremely happy that Junko has accepted this position, which is so vital for leading our efforts to address challenges in many areas, particularly understanding biological processes at a fundamental level,” said Paul Adams, Associate Laboratory Director for Biosciences. “Given her exemplary leadership, I am confident that our current research programs will flourish, and a deepening of connections both with other groups within Biosciences and complementary Areas at the Lab will result in important new collaborations.”

The MBIB Division was established in its current form in 2015, and is one of three scientific divisions that, along with the DOE Joint Genome Institute, form the Lab’s Biosciences Area. The scientific divisions focus on biological systems, from molecules through ecosystems to applications. MBIB investigators focus their research on generating fundamental knowledge that inspires a predictive and mechanistic understanding of biological processes with the ultimate goal of manipulating, controlling, and creating biological functions in order to solve national challenges in energy, environment, health, and biomanufacturing.

“I’m excited by this opportunity to further molecular biophysics and bioimaging research at Berkeley Lab and work with MBIB researchers to strengthen and build on our foremost expertise in bioenergetics, structural biology, and cellular and tissue imaging,” said Yano. “I believe the strength and the uniqueness of the MBIB Division is the combination of expertise in the fields of X-ray science, advanced imaging techniques, and in computational simulations and theory, including the artificial intelligence/machine learning (AI/ML) approach.”

Yano’s research interests over the last two decades have been broadly in the field of biophysics and renewable energy that has cut across many disciplines. Her most notable contributions have been in the fields of both natural and artificial photosynthesis, metalloenzymes relevant to renewable energy, and X-ray science in the hard and soft X-ray energy ranges using spectroscopy and crystallography. She and her group study how, during photosynthesis, plants use light to split water using the manganese-calcium catalytic center, converting light energy into chemical energy.

“Early on, we saw the opportunity that X-ray free electron lasers (XFELs) would be a powerful tool for understanding molecular and atomic-level phenomena in metalloenzymes,” said Yano, who has led an international effort that pioneered the use of XFEL research. They have successfully solved numerous technical challenges in the biochemical, physical, and engineering aspects of this project, making XFEL crystallography and spectroscopy a robust tool to understand molecular and atomic-level phenomena under functional conditions.

These efforts have paid off, with contributions and achievements have been recognized nationally and internationally, in the photosynthesis, metalloenzyme, and X-ray science communities. “I am particularly pleased to see that we have involved multiple groups in the MBIB Division in this endeavor, and assisted in the growth of the early career scientists to be independent scientists, who are now becoming leaders in the photosynthesis, metalloenzyme, and XFEL fields,” she continued.

Understanding this fundamental biological process informs her efforts to mimic this natural phenomenon in the lab. Yano, who also leads the photodynamics team at LiSA, said, “Through our research we not only answer the most basic questions about the event that produces the oxygen that we breathe, but help to create a new form of clean energy.”

Yano is also a co-PI of the HBCU (Historically Black College or University)-led Energy Frontier Research Center (EFRC), Center for Electrochemical Dynamics and Reactions on Surface (CEDARS), which was funded by the Department of Energy (DOE) Office of Basic Energy Sciences (BES) in 2022. This has opened opportunities for Berkeley Lab scientists to work with North Carolina A&T State University students and faculty.

As a leader in the Division, Yano has actively promoted Inclusion, Diversity, Equity, and Accountability (IDEA) principles and fostered career development activities. She encouraged changes in the membership of the MBIB IDEA committee to reflect a broader representation of the Division. She has assigned mentors for Division members, occasionally suggesting multiple mentors based on each one’s strength.

Yano was honored in the 2020 cohort of Women @ The Lab and has mentored dozens of research assistants, graduate students, and postdoctoral researchers. Through her research and biophysical studies of natural photosynthesis and metalloenzymes important for renewable energy, she has produced more than 215 publications and has garnered over 21,000 citations. Yano has served as a member of the Lab Staff Committee (2016–present) and the DOE Council on Chemical Sciences, Geosciences, and Biochemical Sciences since 2015 for 6 years.

“Junko has a fantastic mix of achievements and qualities that will make her a successful MBIB Division Director. Her international reputation in both natural and artificial photosynthesis, extensive leadership experience, and deep commitment to equity, diversity, and inclusion are a perfect combination,” said Adams.

Yano stands to contribute to Berkeley Lab on many levels. “As Director, I will continue to grow our workforce and emphasize and expand the uniqueness of our research portfolio to address the national challenges in energy, environment, health, and biomanufacturing that are confronting us today,” she said.

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