New Faculty: Martin Jinye Zhang
By Adam Kohlhaas
Computational genetics researcher Martin Jinye Zhang recently joined the Computational Biology Department (CBD) at Carnegie Mellon University as an assistant professor.
Born and raised in Beijing, Zhang has always had a deep interest in natural science, specifically physics, and appreciated the practicality of engineering. This ultimately led him to electrical engineering, which he felt was a good combination of both. After completing his undergraduate degree in electrical engineering at Tsinghua University, he moved to the U.S. and continued his electrical engineering studies, earning both his M.S. and Ph.D. at Stanford University.
In the early days of his education, Zhang was drawn to signal processing and statistics. In graduate school, though, he wanted to use his knowledge to solve real-world problems and began designing algorithms for computational biology. The more he worked on these applications, the more fascinated he became by the underlying biology. So after completing his Ph.D., he moved to Boston and spent four years at Harvard University working in statistical genetics.
“Computational genetics is a vibrant field. New technologies are emerging every day, helping us measure and perturb complex biological systems,” says Zhang. “I am passionate about using these data to understand and decipher the basic principles of genetics.”
Zhang develops computational methods to understand how genetic variants and genes impact human diseases and traits. He is interested in the genetic architecture of diseases and complex traits (e.g., where to find the DNA mutations that impact diseases and traits). He also explores the underlying molecular mechanisms, such as genes mediating the DNA mutations’ impact on diseases and traits. He accomplishes this by analyzing large-scale genetic and genomic data such as genome-wide association studies (GWASs) and gene expression data (e.g., single-cell RNA-sequencing data). He asks biological questions, formulates them into statistical problems and develops software to solve them.
In the future, Zhang aspires to decipher the basic principles governing the genetic basis of human diseases and complex traits. He hopes to understand how single-nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs) affect diseases through affecting gene expression levels. With the recent abundance of genetic and genomic data, he believes that we are closer than ever to revealing these principles.
As a new member of CBD, Zhang appreciates the department's unique focus on both computer science and biology. He believes this to be a great fit for his research and wants to be surrounded by people who can understand and appreciate both sides of the coin. Additionally, Pittsburgh’s healthcare system provides a potentially beneficial resource for his research data.
Outside of work, Zhang enjoys staying active, and plays tennis at an advanced level. He also enjoys other sports such as skiing, jogging, hiking, soccer, badminton and squash. When visiting new cities, he spends his time exploring natural history or art museums. He also enjoys learning and playing chess or reading history books. Zhang’s favorite foods include hot pot, sushi and pepperoni pizza with extra tomato sauce.