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David Zhang on the other side of Immuno-Materials

The Humans of the Wyss series features members of the Wyss community discussing how they think about their work, the influences that help shape them as scientists, and their collaborations at the Wyss Institute and beyond.

In this installment of our Immuno-Materials Edition, we talk to David Zhang, a graduate student in David Mooney’s lab at the Harvard John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences. He talks about his work researching autoimmunity and how he envisions his research impacting the world.

What drives you?

We live in an exciting time for science and medicine. Novel discoveries are being made faster than ever, creating endless possibilities to make change. Curiosity is what piques my interest and pushes me to get started, but it’s the opportunity to touch lives in a meaningful way through scientific advancement and education that keeps me driven and motivated.

You’re researching autoimmunity, tell us more.

In recent years, the Mooney lab has been using biomaterials with immune-modulating properties – “Immuno-Materials” – to train the immune system to target and kill cancer cells. My interests lie on the other side of the spectrum, in autoimmunity. Instead of boosting the immune system, I’m interested in dampening it. When the cells in your immune system becomes autoreactive, they may target and destroy self tissues and organs. I’m interested in using immuno-materials to identify autoimmune cells and to dampen their activity in a localized and specific manner.

Instead of boosting the immune system, I’m interested in dampening it.

David Zhang

Share with us some of the challenges you’re facing.

There are many challenges associated with doing a Ph.D. Someone once told me: “Research is a marathon, not a sprint.” Indeed, it is a process. Every “positive” result comes after a dozen “failures.” It’s frustrating. It’s invigorating. It’s political. And I love it. But it’s not all about the research. An often overlooked challenge of scientific research is how we, as scientists, communicate it to the public. It is our responsibility to accurately communicate our findings in an easily comprehensible manner. I believe this is just as important, if not more important, than publishing and it is something I strive to achieve.

So, how do you envision your research impacting the world?

One of the biggest hurdles preventing the clinical translation of many immunotherapies aimed at treating autoimmunity is that we simply don’t know what to target. We don’t fully understand how these diseases progress and what autoimmune cells are reacting to. Our biomaterial-based immunotherapy approaches have the potential to be highly therapeutic and, more importantly, to be used to identify the immune cells responsible for progressing disease, providing us with a deeper understanding of autoimmune diseases and how to treat them.

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