PhD Student Spotlight: Zhefu (Jeff) Dai

Meet Zhefu (Jeff) Dai, a first-year PhD student at USC Mann who describes the origins of his interest in science, his 10-year career plan, and thoughts on why prospective students should choose USC.

Were you interested in science from an early age? Do you recall any specific “lightbulb” moments where you knew this was the pursuit for you?

When I was very little, I liked to observe different kinds of insects on the lawn downstairs. As a little boy, the diversity of insects and their behaviors were just so intriguing that I started looking into the encyclopedia (the one for children with lots of pictures) to know more. That was the moment I got to know about biology and the general concept of science. I knew I wanted to become a scientist (specifically a insect biologist like Jean-Henri Fabre) at a very early age, and I loved Fabre’s books, such as Fabre’s Book of Insects and The Life of the Spider.

When I was 10 years old, in 2002, I read about the Ebola hemorrhagic fever outbreak in Uganda. Even until recently, Ebola hemorrhagic fever still remains a deadly disease unconquered by our science yet. I realized that there are not just beautiful living things, such as insects, in nature, but also things that are unfortunate and deadly. From then on, biological sciences, and perhaps all science branches, is not just about fulfilling our curiosity about the nature but also about the well-being of the whole human race.

Why did you choose USC Mann?

USC and the school both have a history of brilliance. In addition, USC Mann has great strength and capability in pharmaceutical and translational research.

What was your academic and career background, prior to coming to USC?

When I was an undergraduate student, I studied biological sciences and biochemistry in China (Xi’an Jiaotong-Liverpool University) and United Kingdom (University of Liverpool). Then, with the interest in protein-related therapeutics, I joined USC School of Pharmacy in 2014 as a graduate student.

What is one of the best experiences you’ve had at the school so far?

The professors, staff and students are very nice people, and I am having a great time in the program. One great experience I had was before I was officially admitted into USC. My admission was delayed due to the fact that I didn’t submit my Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL) test score. Because I had already earned a degree in the United Kingdom, I assumed I did not need to take the TOEFL. It was [Program Specialist] Rosie Soltero who pulled out my information from hundreds of applicants and worked out a conditional offer to give me time to take the test. Otherwise, I would probably not be here. It may sound trivial, but this is how Rosie treats hundreds of applicants each year, with great respect and compassion.

Could you tell us a bit about your research and your work in Dr. Yong (Tiger) Zhang’s lab?

My research is focused on both deciphering not well-characterized protein post translational modifications, and the development of antibody-related therapeutics.

My lab is working on profiling the activity of a family of enzymes — poly ADP ribose polymerase (PARP) — in living cells. The PARP family proteins had variety of roles, such as participating in DNA repair, modulating epigenetics and programmed cell death. The aberrant PARP family protein activities are known to be associated with many diseases, including cancers. The work in my lab will shed light onto the not well-known PARP related signaling, and providing clues for the development of future therapeutics targeting PARP family proteins.

In addition, I am working on the development of antibody targeting proteases overexpressed in numerous human diseases, such as rheumatoid arthritis. Engineered antibody had great therapeutic potential due to their descent pharmacokinetic properties and high specificity.

Why should prospective PhD students consider USC Mann?

The Pharmaceutical & Translational Sciences (PHTS) Program offers students a broad range of research labs to choose from. The school is constantly expanding its research capability in both personnel and hardware. If you intend to join the field of pharmaceutical and translational research, this is the program you will love.

What are your long-term career goals and plans after your PhD? Where do you see yourself in 10 years?

I would like to become a scientist developing new therapeutics. In ten years, I may be working in the research and development (R&D) department of a pharmaceutical company, or I may be a junior professor fighting for a tenure position in an academic institution.