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Neurology Student Wins Second-Place in 3MT Competition

December 17, 2020

Growing Brain-like Tissue with Hair describes how researchers use stem cell innovations to study brain disease

By Cody Musselman

Communication is an essential skill for any graduate student researcher and Ce Zhang, a fifth-year MD-PhD candidate in neuroscience, left a lasting impression in the 2020 3-Minute Thesis Competition. Zhang won the second-place prize with his talk Growing Human Smooth Brain-Like Tissue from Hair. In three minutes, he explains how lissencephaly, also known as ‘smooth brain disease,’ occurs through an unknown mechanism whereby fetuses do not develop folds in their brain during pregnancy. A smooth brain severely compromises brain function, can cause seizures, and loss of abilities.

Zhang, a researcher in Kaya Bilguvar’s lab, found a way to obtain suitable brain tissue for research by adding four proteins to hair follicle cells to convert them to stem cells. From these stem cells, Zhang can grow regular brain-like tissue and smooth fetal brain-like tissue over the course of two to three months. By comparing the healthy and abnormal tissue, Zhang hopes he can start to better understand the mechanism of how the disease occurs.

The advantage of using hair is that you can get the research material from any place in the world. You can have someone take five hairs (with the follicles) and put them in a bottle and ship it to a place like Yale and the cells will survive.”

Zhang’s innovation is also useful for studying adult diseases as well, including the effect of coronavirus on the brain. “Everybody knows about the impact of coronavirus in the lung, but 40-80% reported neurological symptoms stemming from coronavirus which is also very important.” This research, conducted in collaboration with Eric Song and Dr. Akiko Iwasaki, has been accepted for publication with the Journal of Experimental Medicine and was recently featured in the Yale Daily News and the New York Times.

Zhang, like other participants, wrote several early drafts of his script and he found the help of the Office of Career Strategy advisors to be especially helpful in synthesizing his research and translating it for a broader audience. “In the beginning it was pretty bad. I spent a couple of hours making the initial talk and then I spent a couple of hours making the PowerPoint slide. Then I took it to Hyun Ja in the Office of Career Strategies.” Zhang expresses gratitude for Hyun Ja Shin and her colleagues, noting that their feedback gave him the outsider’s perspective that helped him streamline his talk. “It was really surprising to me [that] what I thought was easy to understand really wasn’t. It really takes another person outside of your field to tell you what needs to be more clear.”

Zhang’s presentation, along with the presentation of all other 3-Minute Thesis Competition finalists are available for viewing on Yale Office of Career Strategy YouTube Channel.