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Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine

Student Q&A: Xianghou Zou, Driskill Graduate Program in Life Sciences

Xianghou Zou

Xianghou Zou, a fourth-year student in the Driskill Graduate Program in Life Sciences, studies the role of sirtuins, longevity proteins, in tumor progression in the laboratory of David Gius, MD, PhD, professor of Radiation Oncology and Pharmacology. 

Zou earned his undergraduate degree from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Upon beginning his graduate work at Northwestern, he was immediately drawn to translational research and says he hopes to apply to medical school after completing his PhD so he can practice “bench to bedside” medicine. 

Where is your hometown?

I was born in Shenyang, China. It is a big city in the Northeastern part of China. I lived there for 18 years before I decided to begin my undergraduate studies in the United States.

What are your research interests?

Before I started graduate school, I always wanted to do research in the field of cancer biology, and thought it would be great to work on clinically related research. Back then I didn’t know the concept of translational research, but luckily I joined the lab of David Gius, where I am able to work on translational research projects. 

What exciting projects are you working on?

In David Gius’s lab, we study the role of sirtuins. Sirtuins are also known as longevity proteins. Their main function is to regulate cellular energetic homeostasis and to make sure that cells will use their energy efficiently. Loss of sirtuins will decrease life span and result in many different types of cancer, including breast and pancreatic cancer. Therefore, the central hypothesis of our lab is that loss of sirtuin activity will lead to tumorigenesis and tumor permissive phenotypes. Specifically, my thesis project is to study how acetylation of IDH2 at lysine 413, due to loss of sirtuin 3 activity, may result in breast cancer malignancy risk and tumor permissive phenotypes.

What attracted you to the PhD program?

The location of Northwestern was a big draw for me. Chicago is a great city to live in, with lots of restaurants, shops, museums and a great lake. Feinberg is located in the center of Chicago, and it has many faculty members and research areas for students to choose from. In addition, during my interview process, I met many DGP students and our associate program director, Steve Anderson, PhD, and they were all very patient with me and happy to answer my questions. It was a great experience and really supported my decision to pursue a PhD degree at Northwestern.

What has been your best experience at Feinberg?

Winning my first-ever award in graduate school at Research Day has been my favorite experience yet. My graduate work moves very slowly. I tried six different projects before finally landing on my thesis project. So I think that winning my award on Research Day is recognition of all my previous efforts and a reward for never giving up. But most importantly, the award will motivate me to work even harder in my research area so that I will continue achieving my research goals and so that in the future my research can be used in clinical settings.

How would you describe the faculty at Feinberg?

The faculty members at Feinberg are all very nice. Many of the faculty members that I know are great mentors to students and they are supportive to the development of a student. My adviser, David Gius, allows me to make mistakes and try different things in my project, giving me freedom in my research, because he believes that students must make mistakes to learn. This environment encourages students to make new discoveries and make progress in research. 

What do you do in your free time?

I either play tennis or go to the gym in the evening. I also like cooking and baking and will occasionally play piano to relax. I am also a big fan of learning foreign languages, because I know learning additional languages will help me integrate to different countries faster.

What are your plans for after graduation?

My adviser is a physician-scientist, and I really like his work style. Seeing him run research in a lab while seeing patients and using what has been discovered in the research field to solve clinical problems is very inspiring. I hope that I can become a physician-scientist one day as well, but it certainly takes time. 

Watch a video to learn more about Zou’s research.