Jia Jia Zhang just finished the fifth year of her PhD at Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California San Diego. She was born in China and moved to the United States as a young child. She lived in Fargo, North Dakota briefly, but spent most of her childhood in Battle Creek, Michigan. Zhang attended Harvard University where she graduated with a bachelor’s degree in biomedical engineering in 2013.
She is now studying marine chemical biology at Scripps in the lab of Bradley Moore, a professor at the Center for Marine Biotechnology and Biomedicine. Zhang’s research focuses on establishing genetic tools for heterologous expression - the process of taking genes and putting them in a different host organism, with the hopes that that organism will also express those genes - and genetic manipulation of antibiotic-producing biosynthetic gene clusters.
These genetic manipulations can be challenging, and she hopes to develop tools to make the process easier, so that scientists can engineer gene clusters to produce more products useful to humans, such as antibiotics, anticancer drugs, and other types of medicines. We talked with Zhang to find out what drew her to Scripps, what sparked her love for chemical biology, and more.
explorations now: Why did you choose to attend Scripps to pursue a PhD?
Jia Jia Zhang: I was interested in Scripps because of its dynamic and unique research environment, proximity to many other leading research institutes, and promotion of work-life balance. I've really enjoyed my time at Scripps and have found it to be a great place to be a graduate student and develop as a person and as a scientist.
en: What are you researching at Scripps and how did you become interested in this field?
JZ: Our work in the Moore Lab focuses on characterizing the biosynthesis of marine natural products, or small molecule chemicals produced by marine organisms. The focus of my work during my PhD has been on establishing genetic tools for heterologous expression and genetic manipulation of antibiotic-producing biosynthetic gene clusters. I was first exposed to the field of natural products as a small child, although I didn't know it at the time, through traditional Chinese medicine, which my family uses in addition to western medicines. My interest and understanding of the field grew as I conducted research and took courses in chemistry and biology in college, and after graduation I came to Scripps to join the Moore Lab for my PhD.
en: What’s life like as a Scripps student?
JZ: A typical day for me is spent in the laboratory conducting experiments. You may find me at my lab bench pipetting reagents, substances used to cause chemical reactions, or setting up cultures; if the experiment is routine I like to listen to NPR podcasts while I work. These days, I spend more and more time away from the bench and on my computer reading and writing. Field work has not been part of my PhD work, which is okay with me because I enjoy lab research. Some mornings, I may grab coffee with one of my lab-mates while chatting about life, politics, or science. I also try to regularly attend interesting scientific talks not only at Scripps, but also at UC San Diego, the Scripps Research Institute, or the Salk Institute whenever I can, since they are all close by.
en: What’s the most exciting thing about your work?
JZ: I am fascinated by the biological complexity of living organisms and their exquisite ability to make structurally diverse, complex, and potently bioactive small molecules. Through my current and future work, I am excited not only about the prospect of discovering new bioactive molecules, but also of gaining a deeper understanding of how small molecules are constructed in cells and how they contribute to the biological complexity of living organisms.
en: Are there any role models or mentors who have helped you along the way?
JZ: I have been helped by many role models and mentors throughout my life, during college and my graduate studies, including of course my current PhD adviser, Bradley Moore. My parents and younger sister have always supported me, both personally and professionally. I also had a very influential chemistry teacher, Walt Erhardt, who encouraged me to conduct research while I was in high school. With his support, I conducted an after-school research project using donated lab equipment to analyze herbs used in Traditional Chinese Medicine.
en: What are some of the challenges you face as a student?
JZ: As a young woman in science, I have long struggled with impostor syndrome, although until recently, I did not know that this feeling/phenomenon had a name. Learning that others also experience this type of insecurity and being able to put a name to it have helped me recognize and manage the issue. Also, scientific research can be very humbling. I have experienced a lot of failure and confusion in the classroom and the lab, and more than once I've thought that I might not be successful in my pursuits. But when facing these challenges, I try to remember a quote by the poet Robert Frost, "Education is hanging around until you've caught on." So as long as we are persistent, we will eventually get to wherever we are going.
en: What are your future plans?
JZ: I hope to continue conducting academic research at a research institute or university.
You can find the Moore Lab on Facebook at Moore Lab.