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Student Spotlight: Vivian Zhang

Vivian Zhang, a MD-PhD student, is currently conducting research in the Kalow lab. Vivian completed her B.S. in biomedical engineering at Columbia University, where she gained research experience studying the structure-function properties of group 14 molecular wires. Outside of the lab, Vivian enjoys cooking, practicing yoga, and immersing herself in the vibrant arts scene of Chicago.

What made you decide to attend Northwestern University?

I chose to attend Northwestern University and join its dual-degree Medical Scientist Training Program for three reasons: 1) the opportunity to create a unique training pathway,  2) the institutional resources and support, and 3) the student community.

It is in my nature to want to pursue multiple intellectual avenues in depth with the goal of gaining the literacy to initiate conversations between different, maybe even disparate-seeming research areas. Northwestern’s institutional environment reflects this goal, and the many cores, institutes, and academic programs are set up to enable personalized training and foster cross-disciplinary collaborations. I often meet people doing unconventional combinations of work, like anesthesiology and machine learning, and I am endlessly inspired by this creativity. During my visit weekend, potential mentors, advisors, and MSTP leadership often asked me, "What's your interest?"? How can we help?" I left with the impression that I would get plenty of latitude and support to explore my interests at Northwestern, even if they changed and evolved over the years (and they have!).

The student community was also very welcoming from the start. When I was choosing a school, the current students were friendly and generous with their time. They often reached out to check in, answer my questions about the program, and just chat about living in Chicago. This peer mentorship engendered a sense of community and camaraderie early on.

Is there a professor that has made an impact on your academic career?

Can I only pick one?! I’m going to pick two. My undergraduate advisor Professor Colin Nuckolls was enormously influential in redirecting my career interests toward chemistry. I studied biomedical engineering as an undergraduate student. However, taking organic chemistry with him lit a spark for the subject matter that I followed as an undergraduate researcher with his group. His unwavering support and encouragement, despite my non-traditional educational background, helped build my confidence to make the academic transition at a formative stage.

I also have to highlight my advisor Professor Julia Kalow! She has guided my development as an independent scientific thinker and taught me how to communicate scientific ideas clearly through visual, verbal, and written means. She is my all-time favorite person to ask for writing feedback. Julia has also been a great role model for thoughtful leadership. It is evident that she puts incredible amounts of thought, attention, and care into all her endeavors. She also brings lots of organization and creativity to how she manages her lab. She sets and holds us to high expectations. In doing so, she has shown me what I can accomplish when I trust in the process, show up every day, and put in a sincere, authentic effort. I appreciate how approachable she is, and I am very grateful for her mentorship over these last four years.

What has been the highlight of your academic career thus far?

I really enjoyed attending and presenting at the 2022 GRC on Multiscale Mechanochemistry and Mechanobiology in Ventura, CA. The scientific focus of the conference—how molecules, macromolecular complexes, cells, and tissues respond to mechanical forces—brought researchers from many disciplines together to discuss unique paradigms and translatable ideas between fields. In addition, the format of the conference—smaller attendance with full days of talks, posters, shared meals, and social time—provided opportunities to meet everyone and continue interesting conversations over multiple days. Coming out of the pandemic when we were doing research under unusually insular conditions, I felt eager to meet researchers from other institutes and countries to learn more about their research fields, perspectives, and experiences. I became friends with many great people, and the conference made me feel more connected to the broader research community.

I have also enjoyed every writing project I’ve taken on. Each one has been challenging but uniquely rewarding. It’s been interesting to reflect on my growth as a writer, scientist, thinker, and person after going through each one.

How would you explain what you study to non-scientists?

I work on molecular-level engineering of hydrogels, a type of material that is most familiar to consumers through products like contact lenses and gel wound dressings. Hydrogels are ideal materials for biological and medical applications because their mechanical properties are on par with those of most tissues found in the body. To study normal and disease processes like aging or cancer metastasis, it is important to develop synthetic systems that replicate those properties and how they change over time. As a chemist, I use my understanding of how chemical structure influences mechanical behavior to make new types of hydrogels. These tools will hopefully be used to study important biological questions about how cells respond to their mechanical environment.

How did you become interested in your research? 

I first became interested in materials chemistry through studying molecular electronics with Professor Colin Nuckolls during my undergraduate years. Materials chemistry has a design component that appeals to my engineering side (my undergraduate training was in biomedical engineering), and I find it fascinating that synthetic organic chemists can make molecules that never existed before. I joined Julia’s lab to continue this type of exploration with synthetic polymer networks and stimuli-responsive materials.

Tell us more about the research you are conducting in Professor Kalow’s lab.

I research how tuning the reaction landscapes of dynamic, reversible cross-links translates to the macroscopic physical properties of covalent adaptable hydrogels. Polymer networks constructed from dynamic bonds can rearrange, which imparts unique properties like viscoelasticity (having both solid-like and liquid-like behaviors), self-healing, remoldability, and stimuli-responsiveness. By using physical organic principles to influence cross-link reactivity—such as electronic effects, internal catalysis, and pre-organization—and insights into the mechanisms of exchange, I can tune molecular exchange rates over multiple orders of magnitude. These trends are directly reflected in the timescales of hydrogel network rearrangement. Ultimately, this work contributes to our understanding of how the molecular and macroscopic worlds connect. This has significant implications for many applications, ranging from the development of sustainable materials to 3D printing to tissue engineering.

What do you like most about working in the Kalow Group?

The Kalow lab has been an amazingly collegial place to work. We are constantly bouncing around ideas, talking about day-to-day happenings, sharing advice, offering support, and celebrating each other’s successes big and small. This creates a positive environment in which to do science and motivates me to persevere through the inevitable trials and challenges that come with academic research. My colleagues have helped me brainstorm my way out of prolonged research ruts, provided words of encouragement as I’ve progressed through milestones, and made me laugh every day. I feel fortunate that my current and former labmates have become some of my closest friends.

Where do you hope to be in your career in the next 10 years?

I would like to be an attending doctor in a procedural specialty (such as orthopedic surgery or interventional radiology) and contribute to advancing the medical care of diseases through research, collaboration, and advocacy. I’m open to any form the latter takes as long as there are opportunities to teach, mentor, and nurture the next generation of chemists and clinicians. I’ve felt that doors have continued to open as I’ve advanced through my training, and I anticipate that I will learn about even more unique ways to leverage joint medical and scientific training over the next 10 years. It is a long period of time!



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