For the duration of the virtual spring 2020 semester, Daniel Zhang, a senior majoring in biology, place his time at home to good use. In the garage of his residence in San Diego, California, Zhang helped his 13-calendar year-aged brother construct a lab to study dry eye disorder.
This combination of mentorship and medication feels like next character to Zhang. When his moms and dads opened a family members-operate optometry clinic, Zhang was their initially affected individual and then their receptionist. And immediately after a shut relatives member passed absent from leukemia, he remembers imagining, “Humans are susceptible to so numerous illnesses — why do not we have superior cures?”
That query propelled him to shell out his higher university summers studying biomarkers for the early detection of leukemia at the University of California at San Diego. He was invited to existing his investigation at the London International Youth Science Forum, in which he spoke to scientists from nearly 70 international locations. Afterward, he was hooked on the plan of scientific analysis as a vocation.
“Research is like standing on the shoulders of giants,” he claims. “My encounter at the discussion board was when I realized I beloved science and wanted to proceed applying it to locate frequent ground with other individuals from absolutely diverse cultures and backgrounds.”
Checking out the forefront of most cancers study
As before long as he arrived at MIT as a first-yr undergraduate, Zhang began doing work underneath the assistance of postdoc Peter Westcott in professor Tyler Jacks’ lab. The lab focuses on acquiring superior mouse and organoid styles to study most cancers development — in Zhang’s circumstance, metastatic colorectal most cancers.
1 of the approaches to model colorectal cancer is by injecting an engineered virus directly into the colons of mice. The viruses, named lentiviral brokers, “knock out” tumor suppressor genes and activate the so-referred to as oncogenes that generate cancer forward. Nevertheless, the imprecise character of this injection also unintentionally transforms a lot of “off-target” cells into cancer cells, producing a most cancers that’s much way too prevalent and aggressive. In addition, uncommon tumors referred to as sarcomas are generally initiated fairly than adenocarcinomas, the style of tumor found in 95 percent of human circumstances. As a consequence, these mouse designs are limited in their means to accurately design colorectal most cancers.
To deal with this issue, Zhang and Westcott created a method using CRISPR/Cas9 to target a exclusive stem cell called LGR5+, which scientists consider are the varieties of cells that, when mutated, expand into colorectal cancer. His approach modifies only the LGR5+ cells, which would let scientists to control the amount at which adenocarcinomas develop. As a result, it generates a model that is not only significantly additional very similar to human colorectal most cancers than other models, but also allows researchers to speedily take a look at for other opportunity cancer driver genes with CRISPR/Cas9. Designing an exact design is very important for acquiring and testing effective new therapies for people, Zhang states.
Throughout MIT’s virtual spring and slide semesters of 2020, Zhang shifted his target from benchwork in the lab to computational biology. Using affected person knowledge from the Most cancers Genome Atlas, Zhang analyzed mutation prices and uncovered 3 genes perhaps involved in colorectal cancer tumor suppression. He ideas to take a look at their purpose in his new mouse design to further more validate how the dysfunction of these genes drives colorectal cancer development.
For his do the job on organoid modeling of colorectal cancer, a third job he’s labored on all through his time at the Jacks lab, he also won recognition from the American Association for Most cancers Study (AACR). As one of 10 winners of the Undergraduate Scholar Award, he experienced the chance to current his investigate at the virtual AACR meeting in 2021 and yet again at the future AACR Convention in New Orleans in April 2022.
He credits MIT’s “mens et manus” philosophy, encouraging the palms-on software of expertise, as a massive section of his early achievements in analysis.
“I’ve located that, at MIT, a lot of folks are pursuing assignments and asking concerns that have by no means been believed of right before,” Zhang says. “No just one has at any time been ready to acquire a late-phase design for colorectal cancer that’s amenable to gene modifying. As far as I know, other than us, no a single in the world is even working on this.”
Inspiring long term generations to go after STEM
Outside of the lab, Zhang devotes a substantial sum of time to sharing the science he’s so passionate about. Not only has he been awarded the Gene Brown Prize for undergraduate training for his time as a training assistant for the lab course 7.002 (Fundamentals of Experimental Molecular Biology), but he’s also taken on leadership roles in science outreach functions.
Throughout the 2020-21 educational calendar year, he served as co-director of DynaMIT, an outreach application that organizes a two-week STEM software in excess of the summer season for underserved sixth to ninth graders in the higher Boston place. Even though the plan is customarily held in-human being, in summer months 2021 it was held just about. But Zhang and the relaxation of the board did not permit the digital structure prevent them from maximizing the entertaining and interactive mother nature of the program. They packed and transported almost 120 science kits concentrated on five significant topics — astronomy, biology, chemistry, mechanical engineering, and math — letting the college students to examine anything from paper rockets to catapults and trebuchets to home made ice product.
“At initially, we ended up apprehensive that most of the students would not turn on their cameras, considering that we observed that development all above MIT classes during the semester,” Zhang suggests. “But nearly absolutely everyone experienced their cameras on the whole time. It was seriously gratifying to see pupils come in on Monday definitely shy, but by Friday be actively participating, creating jokes with the mentors, and getting definitely thrilled about STEM.”
To look into the extensive-phrase impacts of the method, he also served kick-start off a undertaking that adopted up with DynaMIT alumni, some of whom have presently graduated from college. Zhang states: “We were being satisfied to see that 80-90 p.c of DynaMIT alumni enjoyed the software, score it 4 or five out of 5, and close to 70 % of them explained that DynaMIT experienced a definitely optimistic influence on their trajectory towards a occupation in STEM.”
Zhang has also served as president of the MIT Pre-health-related Culture, with the ambitions of fostering an encouraging environment for premed undergraduates, and offering assistance and means to very first- and second-yr college students nevertheless undecided about the premed path. To reach these goals, he pioneered an MIT-hosted mixer with the premedical societies of other Boston schools, such as Wellesley College, Boston College, Tufts University, and Harvard University. At the mixer, college students were equipped to community with just about every other and listen to guest speakers from the different universities converse about their ordeals in medicine. He also started out a “big/little” initiative that paired 3rd- and fourth-yr mentors with to start with- and second-yr pupils.
Supplying new prospect and hope
The wealth of routines Zhang has participated in at MIT has inspired his selections for the future. Immediately after graduation, he ideas to get a hole yr and function as a exploration technician in pediatric oncology before implementing to MD/PhD applications.
On the mentorship aspect, he’s at this time operating to build a nonprofit firm referred to as Upcoming African Scientist with his previous Ugandan roommate, Martin Lubowa, whom he satisfied at a study overseas application throughout MIT’s Impartial Activities Interval in 2020. The organization will educate large schoolers in Africa qualified competencies and expose them to various STEM matters — a project Zhang programs to work on submit-MIT and into the lengthy phrase.
Eventually, he hopes to direct his individual lab at the intersection of CRISPR-Cas9 engineering and cancer biology, and to provide as a mentor to foreseeable future generations of scientists and physicians.
As he places it: “All of the activities I have experienced so much have solidified my goal of conducting investigate that impacts patients, particularly younger ones. Becoming ready to supply new opportunity and hope to sufferers suffering from late-phase metastatic disorders with no existing cures is what inspires me just about every working day.”