Jim Zhang

Major: Biochemistry and Cell Biology
Research Advisor: Yizhi Jan Tao

Jim Zhang loves viruses, and his work in Yizhi Jane Tao’s structural virology research group further kindles that passion. While infectious packets of genetic information might seem like an odd thing to adore, as Jim pointed out, “They’re not all bad. You know, technically their goal isn’t to kill us. They just want to reproduce, and along the way that leads to a few bumps in the road.”

Jim traces his fascination with viruses and, more broadly, biochemistry back to his freshman year of high school when he fell in love with the material in his introductory biology class. At the time, he was in an engineering preparatory program, but it didn’t take him long to decide that his true passion was for basic biological science. As a freshman at Rice, Jim has been able to turn his passion into practice for the first time by joining the Tao research group.

Researchers in the Tao lab work to elucidate the structure of three different viruses: Astrovirus, which replicates in the intestinal tract of humans; the Hepatitis B virus, which replicates in the human liver; and the Orsay virus, the first virus ever discovered that can infect the nematode Caenorhabditis elegans. One of the most important goals in a structural virology lab is to purify viral proteins enough to analyze them and get high-resolution imagery of their structures. Jim is assigned to the Orsay virus team but also assists with the other projects.

At first glance, you might wonder why we should care about a virus that infects nematodes. It isn’t as if we’re going to start establishing a nematode healthcare system anytime soon. But as anyone who has taken introductory biology knows, C. elegans comes up in a lot of very significant experiments because it is small, simple, easy to take care of, and we’ve studied it so much already that we know a lot about it. It is also an animal, which means it shares more genes and fundamental biological traits with humans than most of us would care to think about. The combination of such an important model organism and a virus that infects it could provide scientists with an incredible tool to help figure out how animals respond to viral infection. The hope is that if the Tao lab can successfully structure the Orsay virus, that will help other researchers understand how the virus interacts with C. elegans.

Besides that, the Orsay virus is just cool. One of the proteins that the Orsay virus encodes for is called delta. “Delta has no known homology to any other protein in GenBank [a database of all publicly available genes and the proteins they code for]," said Jim. "I’m pretty sure that’s a direct quote from a research paper that’s just imprinted on my mind because it’s so amazing.” Because all proteins evolve from other proteins, most can be categorized into groups of related proteins that we call homologous, but as far as we know, delta can’t. Another thing that makes delta weird is what it does. Scientists think that delta helps the Orsay virus get in and out of C. elegans intestinal cells by rearranging the actin (part of the cell scaffolding) networks in the cells. “So if you want to make it really sound intense, you can say that the virus enters and exits by literally restructuring the gut of the worm, but all throughout this process, the worm is not visibly affected except that it gets a little bigger and harder to wiggle because its gut is so big,” he said.

This is Jim’s first semester in the Tao lab. He describes his experience on the first day as “exciting and terrifying.”

“I was so surprised that they accepted me because I’m a freshman and I had no experience, but when I emailed Dr. Tao, within five minutes she responded ‘Sure, let’s meet in my office.’ And a week later I walked into lab.

“Everything was so new and there was a lot of training to be done," Jim said. "On the first or second day I punctured a gel because I couldn’t pipette right, I was so nervous. I was doing SDS gel electrophoresis [a technique for separating proteins], and I was pipetting a sample into one of the little tiny wells [openings in the gel], and my hands were shaking, and the little pipette was wiggling throughout the gel, so I was pretty much just puncturing holes in it left and right. But you know, we’re learning, and that’s the most exciting part.”

A typical day in the lab for Jim consists of using various techniques to separate out the different components of tiny samples of protein solutions that look like “caps filled with juice.” But to Jim, it doesn’t matter that the samples don’t look like much. “The other day, my mentor was telling me how within the protein sample I was plating [putting into a gel for separation] there was the surface protein of the Hepatitis B virus. Just the knowledge that I was working with a very pure sample of an integral part of the hepatitis B virus that allows it to be so infectious was incredibly cool.”

During the moments when Jim leaves behind the lab and his ever-present organic chemistry textbook, Jim’s most consistent hobby is trying to learn something new: “Do I tell you my actual favorite hobby? What if it’s really nerdy, like ridiculously nerdy? Well… I play a lot of video games on the side. I cook, I bake. But I always try to make it a summer project where, alongside whatever else I’m doing, I pick one subject and read an introductory textbook on it.”

Jim’s ultimate goal is to become a professor and researcher in the field of biochemistry so that he can share his love of learning with others. “One objective above all in teaching is just to capture someone’s interest and curiosity. That’s the kind of professor I want to be, someone who makes people think, ‘Oh, that was really interesting. I want to read about this even after lecture, I want to go ask a question about it.’ Just to be able to spark someone’s curiosity. It would be amazing to have the opportunity to teach and learn every single day for the rest of my life,” said Jim.

During my interview with Jim, another Will Ricer approached to find out what we were doing. When I informed her, she leaned in towards my recorder and announced, “Jim is SO cool. Signed Audrey Yao.” I would have to agree, Audrey.