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DNA melding into phylogenetic tree

Person to Person: Yunqing Zhou

From Hong Kong to Happy Valley—an Eberly graduate student’s journey to new frontiers
27 July 2020

Editor's note: This story accompanies the Science Journal feature article "Origins of complexity."


When Yunqing Zhou arrived at Penn State to begin his graduate studies, he had no idea that the experience would potentially change his career trajectory. During his undergrad at Hong Kong Baptist University, Zhou had studied molecular biology, working mostly with plants, so it made sense for him to start his graduate rotation at Penn State in the lab of plant biologist Sally Assmann. “My previous research experience was a really nice fit with Sally’s work,” he says.

Yunqing Zhou in the Jegla lab
   Junqing Zhou in the Jegla lab

Then he joined Assmann’s collaboration with Tim Jegla, an evolutionary neurobiologist, studying a family of ion channels shared by plants and animals. “I had never done any research on ion channels,” Zhou says. “Tim gave me a lot of help understanding the principles, teaching me the techniques.”

Although this field of research was completely new to him, it has changed Zhou’s outlook on his future career plans. “As my studies have gone on,” he says, “I’ve definitely been influenced by Tim. And my current research isn’t limited to plants. I can use these techniques to study other channels, like in neurons or in the heart. I can definitely apply this expertise to other studies, in other directions.”

Now in his third year in Penn State’s Molecular, Cellular, and Integrative Biosciences program, and co-advised by Assmann and Jegla, Zhou is exploring the range of options available to him after he completes his doctorate—although he hasn’t ruled out working with plants. “Maybe identifying a mechanism to deal with drought or other environmental stress, that’s also a possible direction,” he says. “Having two professors from seemingly very distinct research areas as my advisers has really broadened my perspective.”

But just as when he was first starting out, Zhou is still most intrigued by biology at the molecular scale. “My biggest interest is still to understand how these small molecules work,” he says. “It’s fascinating—putting small pieces together to understand the bigger picture.”