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A New York biologist continues his research in São Paulo

Nussenzweig and Zhang: a partnership with Brazilians

Personal Archive Nussenzweig and Zhang: a partnership with BraziliansPersonal Archive

Towards the end of last year, Brazilian scientist Victor Nussenzweig invited Min Zhang, a biologist from China, to take part in a research project underway in São Paulo on enzymes that control the growth of Plasmodium, the protozoan that causes malaria. Zhang, who for five years had worked as a post-doctoral research fellow at Nussenzweig’s laboratory at New York University, saw an opportunity and accepted right away. Along with Nussenzweig, he left for São Paulo in January, and over the course of two months worked in the laboratory of Sérgio Schenkman at the Federal University of São Paulo (Unifesp).

“I’m more independent when I work in Brazil,” says Zhang. “I met more scientists and arranged several collaboration projects.” Zhang also talked about how much he liked the people, climate, food and the city of São Paulo itself, despite the difficulty he faced finding chemical reagents for his experiments. “Progress fell short of what would have been the case in the U.S.,” he says.

“Min is very likeable,” says Schenkman; “he taught us a great deal and his work had a fantastic effect on the group.” Schenkman adds that their association with Zhang changed the attitudes of students and fellow researchers alike. “His manner was that of a pragmatic professional, with a clear objective in mind,” says Schenkman. “In his experiments, he knew exactly what he wanted to do and why he was doing it. The way he planned his experiments and discussed the results was different from our sciences culture. Relating to people with different cultural baggage can bring significant advances to Brazilian science.” Nussenzweig and Zhang brought techniques for enzymes analysis – especially the phosphatases and kinases involved in protein synthesis – that helped identify common biochemical pathways between the Plasmodium and Trypanosoma cruzi, the protozoan responsible for Chagas disease that Schenkman had been researching.

Zhang, age 33, received his undergraduate degree in chemical biology from the University of Hubei, in Wuhan, and his PhD from the University of Fudan, in Shanghai. Later, he “had a number of opportunities to work in different laboratories in the U.S., but his dream was to work with Victor,” says Schenkman. “Victor’s lab is one of the best in the world for malaria research,” he adds. In Steinman’s view, obtaining financing for research in this area is more difficult, especially given the global economic crisis. Research into tropical diseases, on the other hand, is increasing in importance as climate change generates more and more habitats around the world for the insects responsible for these diseases.

Zhang found himself in São Paulo thanks to a thematic project that Nussenzweig had organized on behalf of the São Paulo Excellence Chairs (Spec), a FAPESP pilot program that forges collaboration projects between São Paulo state institutions and world-class Brazilian researchers based abroad. Nussenzweig, age 84, has lived in the U.S. since the 1960s and has been full professor at the University of São Paulo’s school of medicine since 1971. Along with his wife, Ruth, Nussenzweig became world renown for his search for vaccines and treatments against malaria (see Pesquisa FAPESP issue No. 106).

Zhang is due to return to São Paulo in July or perhaps December to spend another four months. “Speaking Portuguese is still a problem for me,” he says, “but I plan to take a course once I’m back in Brazil.”