This summer, the O'Neal Comprehensive Cancer Center is exploring the role of the mentor-mentee relationship in cancer research training and education. For the second spotlight in this series, we’ll learn more about Chao Zhang, M.D., Ph.D., and his mentor, Runhua Liu, M.D., Ph.D., an associate scientist at the O'Neal Comprehensive Cancer Center at UAB and an associate professor in the UAB Department of Genetics at the Heersink School of Medicine.


Runhua Liu, M.D., Ph.D. (left), and Chao Zhang, M.D., Ph.D. (right)Runhua Liu, M.D., Ph.D. (left), and Chao Zhang, M.D., Ph.D. (right)

After completing his Ph.D. at UAB in 2020, Chao Zhang, M.D., Ph.D., remained at UAB to begin his training as a postdoctoral researcher, which included rotations in a variety of UAB research labs. It was on one of these rotations that he began working in the lab of O’Neal Comprehensive Cancer Center Associate Scientist Runhua Liu, M.D., Ph.D., who soon became Zhang’s mentor.

Zhang’s research in Liu’s lab focuses on triple-negative breast cancer (TNBC) and how it is affected by chronic stress.

“Breast cancer is the most common cancer diagnosed in American women. More than 200,000 cases are reported in the U.S. per year. Moreover, TNBC is three times more likely to end in death than other breast cancer subtypes, and it disproportionately affects young African American women,” Zhang said. “But the role of chronic stress in TNBC progression and metastasis remains elusive, so we are working to figure out the relationship between chronic stress and TNBC progression and metastasis.”

"UAB and this training program are very good for researchers. It’s very supportive. I’ve had postdoctoral training before, and I think postdocs doing a couple years of training is very important for later in their career."

—Runhua Liu, M.D., Ph.D.

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In this O'Neal Mentorship Spotlight, the O'Neal Cancer Center asked Zhang about his work so far.

Q: Why are you interested in this work and how did you become interested in it?

A: “The study of breast cancer has been underway for more than 100 years. Even though the survival and prognosis of patients have significantly improved, many patients still experience relapse and recurrence. As we know, chronic stress is under the control of the neuron system, so this implies that the neuron system may mediate the progression of TNBC. Because there are few studies of neuron-mediating tumor progression, we want to find new cellular and molecular mechanisms of TNBC, which is the most attractive part for me.”

Q: What have you learned while working with your mentor, Runhua Liu, M.D., Ph.D.?

A: “To progress toward becoming an independent researcher, a good relationship with a mentor during postdoctoral training is necessary. The mentor not only provides funding support but also helps develop systematic research logic. During the application of this program, from the title chosen to the arrangement of the writing and the decision on the next research plan, I repeatedly discuss it with Dr. Liu. The O’Neal NextGen Scholars award is an excellent example of how important cooperation with the mentor is. Dr. Liu is a professional and knowledgeable scientist. She gives me a lot of help during the design and process of the project. I think the most important thing I have learned from her is to seek out novel ideas and explore areas other people haven’t already explored. Even though I have been here for almost two years, I am sure this relationship will impact my whole research career.”

 

"Dr. Liu is a professional and knowledgeable scientist. She gives me a lot of help during the design and process of the project. I think the most important thing I have learned from her is to seek out novel ideas and explore areas other people haven’t already explored."

—Chao Zhang, M.D., Ph.D.

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“I’m so proud that Dr. Zhang joined our lab,” Liu said. “He’s very independent, and I think that most postdoctoral trainees are very independent. UAB and this training program are very good for researchers. It’s very supportive. I’ve had postdoctoral training before, and I think postdocs doing a couple years of training is very important for later in their career.”