Melody Zeng, Ph.D.
Department of Pathology
OGPS: What is your academic and research background?
Zeng: I double-majored in biochemistry and psychology as an undergraduate student at Stony Brook University, and received my PhD degree in Microbiology and Immunology from Indiana University School of Medicine. In graduate school I initially was interested to study stem cells in Dr. Mary Dinauer’s lab, but very soon I realized stem cells give rise to white blood cells that are essential for us to fight off infections. I eventually developed a thesis project that addressed how aged neutrophils, which are typically the first immune responders to an infection but are very short-lived, are cleared by macrophages (another key immune cell in innate immunity) and how this process initiates a cascade of immune cell responses that help resolve inflammation following tissue injury. After graduation I joined Dr. Gabriel Nunez’s lab at the University of Michigan for my postdoctoral training to study the gut microbiome and intestinal infections.
OGPS: How did you decide what you wanted to do in your science career?
Zeng: I think during college, like most young people, I went through a period of self-doubt and confusion as to whether I would be good at something that I could make a good career out of. I always had that curiosity about human physiology and the connection between the body and the mind. I was uncertain, however, if I was cut out for science. I overall did well in my science classes, but my grades certainly did not reflect how frustrated I felt about biochemistry and organic chemistry. I hated having to memorize things just for exams and that was what I did for these two classes. On the other hand, I breezed through all my non-science classes. At one point I started to question if I had what it takes to be a successful scientist, until I started to volunteer in a cell biology laboratory where I worked closely with a senior graduate student on his thesis project. This student, Jon Stallings, had spent years in the military before joining the graduate program so he had more life experience to share with me. Jon was very patient to teach me all the basic techniques and, more importantly, he would spend time to “discuss” his experiments with a clueless student like me every day. Almost immediately I fell in love with doing hands-on research in a laboratory, and the excitement to develop a hypothesis and come up with experiments to prove it. In my last two years of college I spent almost all of my time in the lab whenever I didn’t have classes. What really set my feet on the path to a career in biomedical research was when Jon said to me one day that “I think you’ve got a gift for this (research). You should consider this career path”. The encouragement, and confirmation by someone you respect that you are good at something, could have a life-changing impact on a young person. And that was what Jon’s words did to me. Thus, I hope all the scientists out there, regardless of the stage of career you’re in, if a summer high school or undergraduate student in your lab is good at what they are doing, please tell them.
OGPS: What are your current research initiatives?
Zeng: A focus of my current research in Dr. Gabriel Nunez’s lab is to study the interaction between host immune cells and gut bacteria that underlies the homeostasis of the gut. These homeostatic mechanisms that keep our gut bacteria in check could be harnessed to develop therapeutic strategies for infection and inflammatory diseases. For example, my work has led to the discovery that that under homeostatic conditions a small subset of primarily Gram-negative gut bacteria induces robust IgG response, resulting in IgG antibodies circulating systemically with specificities against both gut bacteria and pathogens that express the conserved IgG antigens. In response to translocation of gut bacteria or systemic infections by pathogens, these pre-existing IgG antibodies quickly facilitate clearance of translocated gut bacteria or pathogens, well in advance of the engagement of adaptive immunity. There’s a lot to be explored about the gut microbiota-induced IgG response, and this is an important initiative of my current research.
OGPS: What are your future goals?
Zeng: I’ve decided a few years ago that if I was going to do research on a certain group of people, they would be young children. I think it’s mainly because I like kids. I’ve visited the neonatal ICU here at Mott Children’s Hospital, and that only made me more certain that I would like to pursue a career in neonatal/pediatric research. Early life is a critical period in which our immune system is educated by maternal and environmental factors. I hope to have my own lab to study how the neonatal immune system is shaped by maternal factors and early microbial colonizers in the neonatal gut, and how dysregulation in the process might contribute to the development of inflammatory diseases and susceptibility to infection later in life.
OGPS: What accomplishment are you most proud of?
Zeng: I am not afraid to take challenges because I want to push myself to be a better scientist. One example is the risk I took by venturing into the field of gut microbiome for my postdoc studies, while I had never worked with bacteria in graduate school. My Ph.D. training was purely immunology, but a very important function of our immune system is to protect us against microbial infections. I felt my understanding of human immunology would be limited if I didn’t know how immune cells interact with microbes. After joining the Nunez lab, I definitely had a steep learning curve initially to develop my projects. But now I have somewhat successfully developed a robust research program that involves both the gut microbiome and immune cells, and I could carry these projects with me as I move on to the next phase of my career, hopefully as a PI. I feel very lucky to have developed a research program I’m truly passionate about. This would not have been possible had I chosen an easier path and stayed in my comfort zone.
OGPS: What is one piece of advice you would give new Ph.D. students?
Zeng: Be an active member of your local scientific community. Sign up to give presentations to your local groups and participate in your program activities, such as retreats and Research Day. The feedback you get from others, even if they are not directly in your field, will be helpful for your research. This could also lead to potential collaborative projects with your peers. On average I’ve given at least 3 talks per year to different local groups at UM in the past few years, and have met many different researchers through these experiences. All these were fantastic experiences that not only benefitted my research, but also helped me build confidence about public speaking, which is critical for our career development. Additionally, through participation in various activities, I have met people that eventually became good friends of mine. Your research should always be your priority, but other skill sets are critical for your career as well. Interacting with other scientists outside of your lab is a great way to hone these skills.
OGPS: What do you like to do outside of the lab?
Zeng: I stay very active even outside of the lab. I enjoy going for walks with my dog every day, and I always take her to the park for long walks on the weekend. I work out regularly at the gym and do yoga at home sometimes. I like to play and watch golf (the PGA tour). I’ve only started playing golf since two years ago and I really look forward to sharpening my game this summer. Additionally, I do girls nights and weekend brunch catch-ups with my friends when I’m not too busy with work. In summer I like to do road trips with my siblings or friends and go for hikes.
Science is always my number one passion, but I do have other interests, such as psychology, pottery and painting. I read psychology articles frequently just for fun. Drawing and painting are what I’ve always enjoyed doing ever since I was a kid. I like to pick up the brush on a weekend afternoon to paint something when I have nothing else to do, which unfortunately doesn’t happen too often now. When I just moved to Ann Arbor 5 years ago, with almost no friends with hang out with, I had plenty of time to myself and I decided to take classes to learn wheel-thrown pottery at the Ann Arbor Art Center. I really enjoy spending an afternoon in the studio to work on a piece of work and completely immersing myself in that creative pursuit…even just for a few hours.