Clemson Physics and Astronomy Department Establishes Dual PhD Program with University of Paris (France)
by Dr. Emil Alexov
The dream of every graduate student is to get a PhD diploma. What about getting two instead? Mr. Zhe Zhang is a fourth year PhD student in the lab of Computational Biophysics and Bioinformatics at Department of Physics and Astronomy. His research is devoted on modeling effect of disease-causing missense mutations on proteins. structure, function and interactions, which particular emphasis on mental disorders. This is a collaborative research with Greenwood Genetic center, Dr. Charles Schwartz. So far Mr. Zhang completed several studies on the molecular effects causing Snyder-Robinson and Creatine Deficiency syndromes and developed a computational method to predict the effect of single mutations on protein stability. He published 7 papers out of which 3 as a first author. He also presented the research at several meetings of American Biophysical Society and American Physics Society and various workshops. Shortly speaking he is progressing very well toward his PhD.
Mr. Zhang research revealed that typically the effect of disease-causing mutation is not on the active site, the place where the corresponding biological reaction occurs, but rather affects the function of the protein indirectly. A common mechanism is that the mutation either de- or over-stabilize the protein or the corresponding protein ensemble, and thus affecting the function through altered biophysical characteristics. This observation inspired us to seek the possibility that the effect can be mitigated by external stimuli, as for example drugs. Perhaps it should be possible to design small molecules, which will bind to the affected (malfunctioning) protein and restore the original biophysical properties and in result to restore the original function and thus to cure the corresponding disease. Pursuing this idea we established collaboration with the lab of Dr. Maria Miteva at University of Paris, France. She is a leading expert in .virtual screening. of small molecules against target proteins. Preliminary results was already obtained and currently being tested experimentally in the Greenwood Genetic center.
Meanwhile Mr. Zhang got the prestigious Chateaubraind Fellowship supported by the French Department of Science and Technology and Embassy of France. He will be going to France for 6 months in October 2011, followed by another visit in 2012, with the goal to get dual PhD: PhD in physics from Clemson University and PhD in Life Sciences from University of Paris. We anticipate that he will graduate in the end of 2012.
The Chateaubraind Fellowship is part of international initiative between USA and France to promote collaborations between USA and French scientists. Currently the program supports 36 co-supervised PhD students with the following disciplinary breakdown : Mathematics (1), Physics (10), Chemistry (3), ITC (1), Engineering (3), Health-Biology (3), Environment-Geosciences (2), Social Sciences (3), History-Literature (10), with over a third in Social and Human Sciences (36%). Mr. Zhang is one of the 10 students of Physics which dual PhD is funded by the program.
Most institutions participating in the Chateaubraind fellowship are concentrated in the New England area of the US, as well as Florida. Currently, Mr. Zhang is the only student from Clemson supported by the Chateaubraind Fellowship and among the two in South Carolina.