T he balancing act she has become famous for is something she learned from her parents. Both are scientists and professors. They influenced Dr. Zhang’s natural curiosity as she tinkered with ingredients in a homemade chemistry lab—an early memory of growing up that sticks with her as a precursor of what was to come. Fast-forward to her time as a graduate student at the University of Virginia, where she worked in cell biology after being inspired by professors who were doing cancer research. Then, for her PhD, she studied cell migration, which is a process important for cancer metastasis. Dr. Zhang actually intended to stick to studying cellular mechanisms relative to cancer. But fate intervened in the form of an invitation to work on neurons—in particular, the communication between them. She began to create her own unique career path as a result, using what she learned in basic cell biology and applying it to neuroscience, examining signaling mechanisms in synapse formation. Today, Dr. Zhang’s work is focused on dendritic spines– small, actin-rich protrusions that receive most of the excitatory synaptic inputs in the brain. The number, size, and shape of the spines change in response to a variety of factors, including synaptic activity and aging—linking them to neurological disorders and injuries such as Alzheimer’s disease and traumatic brain injury (TBI). “We’ve been focusing on a group of proteins called Par polarity proteins (Par),” says Dr. Zhang. “We found in Alzheimer’s the loss of one of the Par proteins increased the formation of β-amyloid peptides, which make up the plaques that Alzheimer’s patients accumulate in their brains.” The ultimate goal is to determine the molecular mechanism by which these plaques form so a strategy can be developed to reduce them. For TBI, her lab is working on a different Par protein, which she and her colleagues found regulates inflammation of the brain. In people who suffer with TBI, there’s typically a prolonged inflammation that kills brain cells and their connections, inhibiting the recovery of brain function. “We’re trying to figure out mechanisms that trigger the chronic inflammation,” explains Dr. Zhang. “We’ve found in genetically modified mice that have reduced expression of this protein, there is much worse inflammation than regular mice. We are working to develop strategies to stimulate the activity of this protein and reduce inflammation.” Dr. Zhang’s work with dendritic spines may lead to understanding basic mechanisms of how brain cells communicate with one another, which can be applied to many diseases. “There are so many different brain disorders and neurodegenerative diseases for which we don’t have good treatments,” she says. “I think it makes me feel better to be involved in work that I hope will help people.” In terms of balancing work and life, Dr. Zhang feels she has learned to adapt. “I try to be, at work, as efficient as I can and to come up with strategies to manage my time well and figure out what works best for me.” Cheryl Dreyfus, PhD, professor and chair, Department of Neuroscience and Cell Biology, feels that Dr. Zhang is setting the stage for others to follow. “She is committed to becoming a scientist and is going to work hard to do that,” says Dr. Dreyfus. “She’s committed to being a mother and a wife, and she’s going to work hard to do that. She’s going to succeed.” M 34 Robert Wood Johnson I MEDICINE