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Yang Zhang

R. Steve Dick/University Relations

Yang Zhang, assistant professor of molecular biosciences, demonstrates his research. Zhang has won an Alfred P. Sloan Research Fellowship, which recognizes outstanding young researchers with a $50,000 grant for two years.

Zhang earns coveted Sloan fellowship

For Yang Zhang, the good news couldn't have come at a better time. Zhang has developed a system that hundreds of scientists around the world are using to design more effective drugs, and many more are waiting in line to use it.

Zhang, assistant professor of molecular biosciences, recently learned he is one of 118 young researchers to win a prestigious Alfred P. Sloan Research Fellowship. The fellowship includes a $50,000 grant over a two-year period to further research. Zhang and his team developed I-TASSER, a computer server used by scientists around the world to predict protein structures in cells, but it only has the capacity to serve a fraction of those who want to use the resource.

"Fortunately, I will be able to use part of this funding to buy more computers to expand the server space," Zhang said. "That will help more people to develop protein structure predictions, because hundreds of researchers are waiting in the queue. This arrives at a great time."

Zhang's research takes a close look at protein structures in cells. Specifically, he studies a family of membrane proteins known as GPCRs, which are key to signal exchanges outside and inside a cell. Humans have about 850 GPCRs, and only one of their structures has been solved. More than half of drugs on the market are targeted to GPCRs.

"Our goal is to figure out the GPCRs so drug companies can design medications to effectively target them," Zhang said.

The conventional methods for protein-structure determination is through X-ray diffraction or magnetic resonance experiments, but both are extremely expensive and laborious. To partially counteract those problems, Zhang designed a computer server to help predict protein structures using state of the art algorithms. The server was entered in the seventh Critical Assessment of Structure Prediction, or CASP, an international scientific competition. Teams of scientists from around the world were given unknown sequences and asked to predict their protein structures. Three months later, they compared results. Zhang's I-TASSER server was ranked as the best.

"It's very competitive," Zhang said. "It is also a good opportunity to test your methods. After CASP7, many people wanted to use our server."

The recognition has followed his victory. Not only has I-TASSER generated more than 8,600 protein-structure predictions for more than 660 users from 46 countries, it helped him land the Sloan fellowship. The fellowships recognize outstanding researchers in the sciences, mathematics and economics. Thirty-five Sloan fellows have gone on to win a Nobel Prize in their fields.

Zhang is KU's second consecutive Sloan fellow. Wonpil Im, assistant professor of molecular biosciences, received the honor in 2007. KU is one of only four Big 12 institutions to house a Sloan fellow, joining the University of Texas, Texas A&M University and the University of Colorado.

Kathy Suprenant, professor and chair of molecular biosciences, said the fellowship is a well-deserved honor.

"Dr. Zhang is a remarkable colleague who has already established himself as an international leader in protein-structure prediction," she said. "His developments since arriving at KU, such as the I-TASSER, show his future is very bright. We are very honored to be associated with this talented researcher."

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