September 4, 2002

Former Postdoctoral Student Investigated for Research Theft

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The investigation continues into the case of Qinqiang Yin, a former Cornell postdoctoral student who allegedly attempted to steal federally funded research materials from the animal science lab in which he worked.

Yin was charged with conspiracy to transport stolen property for commercial purposes when more than one hundred vials and petri dishes containing an unknown substance were found in his carry-on luggage during a random luggage screening at Syracuse’s Hancock International Airport in late July. Yin, who was in route to China with his family, was also charged with conspiracy to defraud the U.S. The two felonies carry a maximum sentence of 10 years in prison.

The materials initially triggered alarm when they were thought to be connected to bioterrorism. While the substances have since proven to be non-hazardous, they could potentially be highly valued commercially.

“At first, there was the concern that this might somehow be related to terrorism, but that’s not true,” said Kraig Adler, vice provost for The College of Agriculture and Life Sciences (CALS).

Yin remains in jail, but his wife, who was initially held on the charge of endangering their 4-year-old daughter, has been released.

“She was released when tests showed that the materials posed no health risk,” Adler said.

Over the course of the last year, Yin worked in a lab that specializes in developing enzymes that mediate the environmental impact of livestock waste.

“The reduction of these effects is highly desirable and that makes this research of very sizable commercial value,” said Adler.

“The lab has a lot of work invested in designing enzymes that improve the availability of dietary phosphorus and other minerals,” said Prof. Alan Bell, animal science.

The enzymes Yin was working with, called phytases, reduce the phosphorus content of animal waste. Phosphorus pollution is a major environmental problem posed by the large-scale production of livestock, according to Bell.

“Excess phosphorus can negatively impact the environment by encouraging an overgrowth of blue-green algae in water,” Adler said. “The work is quite advanced. Two patents are about to be issued,” said Bell.

The freedom of the academic setting makes such incidents difficult to guard against.

“The laboratory was locked, only those people who need to have access do, and this man had a right to be there. He was a postdoctoral student in the lab,” said Henrik N. Dullea ’61, vice president for University relations.

The research was funded by a grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). The lab followed all of the protocol put forth by the government when dealing with non-hazardous research materials, Dullea said.

“The man even signed a document saying that he would not take any of the materials with him,” said Adler.

Incidents like this one have happened at other universities but Adler could not recall a similar incident previously occurring at Cornell.

“In this case, it could have been worse because patents had not yet been secured. It can be very difficult to prove that you did the work first. Existing patents held by Cornell have been infringed upon in the past, though,” said Adler.

He cited the lawsuit Cornell filed against Hewlett-Packard for patent infringement. The lawsuit, filed last December, seeks damages in excess of $100 million.

The case against Yin is currently being refined by the U.S. Attorney’s office in Syracuse.

“The charges have not been finalized and could very well change,” Dullea said.

Archived article by Philip Lane