Xinjun “Jun” Zhang
An interdisciplinary approach to preventing and treating malaria
Xinjun “Jun” Zhang is a Ph.D. candidate in molecular anthropology. She received her BS in biological sciences and biotechnology from Beijing Normal University in China. She spent her junior year studying at Ludwig-Maximilian University of Munich in Germany, where she was introduced to the interdisciplinary field of biological anthropology. Zhang joined the evolutionary anthropology graduate group at UC Davis in 2012 and received her master’s degree in early 2015.
A “life enthusiast,” Zhang enjoys world traveling, photography, astronomy, and a variety of sports.
Note: This interview was conducted during Jun Zhang’s tenure as a 2015/16 Business Development Fellow.
What’s important about your research—and where do you hope to take it?
I study the first confirmed zoonotic malaria parasite, Plasmodium knowlesi, which is transmittable between humans and a couple of macaque species in the wild. I am looking for genetic variations in its primate hosts that are associated with the differentiated susceptibility among macaque individuals. A serious and often-fatal disease affecting millions of people, malaria one of the largest ongoing global health issues. I hope my research work can help provide insight into more accurate and efficient prevention and treatment of this newly known type of human malaria, by discovering the genetic mechanisms behind individual susceptibility difference upon infection.
What are you most passionate about in your work?
I take a public health-related research direction because I am passionate about helping people, and I am truly excited about about the interdisciplinary approach being a new trend in scientific research. I deeply believe that scientific research makes little sense if it doesn’t result in large-scale impacts for the public. Thus I am now seeking a business path that can bring lab bench studies out to the real world, that applies the knowledge and skills I learn during my Ph.D. studies to an interdisciplinary approach to the ongoing fight against malaria and other public health issues.
How will being in the Business Development Fellows program help you to change the world?
As a Ph.D. student, my passion to help people and make an impact is realized through learning and exploring the unanswered questions in science, and teaching classes to pass down the knowledge to young students. I have always enjoyed teaching, but I am not completely satisfied with the limited scale of this individual-to-individual format. I want to play big games, and that’s why I started exploring the entrepreneurial side of science. I am very excited to participate in the Business Development Fellows program and have the opportunity to learn fundamental business skills, network with students and entrepreneurs with various backgrounds, and form a clear view of the path to my ultimate goal of using business to fight malaria and other public health issues.
Now at midpoint in the program, what is the most important thing you have learned—and the most critical connection you have made?
The business classes are so eye-opening. Before this program, I’d only experienced a scientific academic environment and approach. People in the business world look at problems and solutions from completely different angles that I had never before experienced. I learned and now care more about the dynamic changes in different forms of businesses, and the strategies and models behind both big and small successful ventures. The most important connections I made are with the other program fellows and with the MBA students who share our passions and goals in business, yet bring such contrasting backgrounds. Learning from these diverse perspectives is the most helpful in long-term.