Michael Zhang defends PhD thesis

Michael Zhang successfully defended his PhD thesis, "Characterizing how glycerol monolaurate (GML) affects human T cell signaling and function" on Monday, January 23, 2017. Michael appears with his mentor, Dr. Jon C.D. Houtman.Phd student Michael Zhang with faculty mentor Dr. Jon Houtman

T cells are a type of white blood cell that is an important part of the immune system to fight off infections. Certain diseases occur when T cells are not activated correctly with either too little or too much activation signals. The main way for the T cell to receive these signals is through the T cell receptor. Therefore, studying how certain compounds affect the T cell receptor signaling will reveal knowledge about how this system works and discover new drugs to treat diseases. One chemical that potentially affects T cells and T cell receptor signaling is Glycerol Monolaurate (GML). GML is a natural component of breast milk and coconut oil. GML also has a variety of applications in industry, cosmetic, food, and homeopathic medicine.  GML potently decreases bacteria, fungal, and viral growth and it is currently being tested for the treatment of various infectious diseases. 

However, there is a limited understanding of the direct effects of GML on the human immune system and human T cells in particular. This thesis presents evidence that GML suppresses select events in the T cell receptor signaling cascade that leads to reduced T cell activation responses. Plus, the suppressive effects of GML on human T cells are reversed by human serum albumin, a very abundant protein in the human body. These findings reveal new knowledge about how the T cell receptor signaling process works. These observations provide the evidence to further improve the current uses of GML and provide the foundation to investigate GML as a therapy for diseases caused by inappropriate T cell activation such as allergies and autoimmune diseases.

About Michael

Michael was born in Shenyang, a major industrial city in the heart of Manchuria in the northeast region of China. Because of a lack of quality children’s television programming, one of his favorite TV shows as a kid was a Chinese documentary series about scientific farming. These shows shaped his interest in science and prepared him for the American Midwest. He moved to Iowa in 2000 and grew up to be an “Iowa City Lifer”. He attended Weber Elementary, Northwest Jr High, Iowa City West High School, and The University of Iowa. 

After high school, Michael enrolled at the University of Iowa. Michael joined the laboratory of Dr. Martha Monick in the Internal Medicine Department. Under the supervision of Marty and Linda Powers, Michael started out with basic lab chores and was eventually tasked with helping out various lab members with their scientific experiments.

Michael entered the Medical Scientist Training Program (MSTP) at The University of Iowa in August of 2011, and joined the laboratory of Dr. Jon Houtman in the fall of 2013. Here he focused his doctoral work on how the fatty acid glycerol monolaurate (GML) affects human T cells.

Following the thesis defense, Michael will return to clinical clerkships to fulfill the requirements for the MD degree. He wishes to subsequently matriculate into a medical residency in pediatrics.

Outside of lab, Michael likes to work out, play board games, golf, and obsess over fantasy sports. He enjoys distance running and hopes to run in additional races in the future.

Tuesday, January 24, 2017