The newest McNair Scholars at Baylor College of Medicine have been named: Dr. Chenghang Zong, assistant professor of molecular and human genetics, and Dr. Xaq Pitkow, assistant professor of computational neuroscience.

The McNair Scholar program at BCM identifies rising stars in four areas of biomedical research – breast cancer, pancreatic cancer, juvenile diabetes and neuroscience. It is supported by the Robert and Janice McNair Foundation and managed by the McNair Medical Institute.

Dr. Chenghang Zong

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Dr. Chenghang Zong

Zong joined BCM in 2013, bringing with him expertise in single cell analyses for tumorigenesis and stem cell differentiation as well as a background in the interface between novel single cell technologies and quantitative biology. His lab focuses on pancreatic cancer in particular but his work has wide application to tumor-related research.

His lab examines the genome at single cell resolution, in contrast to the genome averaged from an ensemble of cells. He and his colleagues will study genomic variations between individual cancer cells, working to detect early events that drive tumorigenesis as well as the early stage of tumor heterogeneity that will influence later tumor development. In addition to the genome, his research interests also include developing novel methods for single cell transcriptional and epigenetic profiling to capture the development in action, particularly adult stem cell differentiation.

He will also actively pursue clinical applications of single cell technologies, including prenatal genetic testing as well as early cancer diagnosis.

Zong earned his Ph.D. in Chemistry from the University of California, San Diego after completing his undergraduate degree in physical chemistry from the University of Science and Technology of China.

He began his postdoctoral research fellowship in the department of physics at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign where his mentor was Dr. Ido Golding, associate professor in the Verna and Marrs McLean department of biochemistry and molecular biology at BCM.

His next postdoctoral research fellowship was completed in Dr. Sunney Xie’s lab in the department of chemistry and chemical biology at Harvard University.

Zong has had numerous publications in scientific journals and also has been an invited speaker to conferences and society meetings.

Dr. Xaq Pitkow

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Dr. Xaq Pitkow

As a computational neuroscientist, Pitkow’s research consists of developing theories of the computational function of neural networks, with the goal of explaining how humans use uncertain sensory information to construct coherent perceptions of the world.

Pitkow’s research explores the hypothesis that the brain exploits prior knowledge about the world and the structure of its own sensory representations to select the most probable interpretations of new sense data from a multitude of improbable ones.

His research proceeds by mathematizing perceptual tasks and useful strategies for performing them, and then deducing key predictions about behavior and neural mechanisms. These predictions identify properties of behavior or circuit function that are essential for the computational model to work correctly. As a theorist, he collaborates with experimentalists to test these predictions in animal brains.

Pitkow’s research is focused primarily on vision and how the brain transforms low-level visual features like oriented edges into higher-level representations of object properties. This work will have broader implication on other sensory systems, how neural representations are learned and transformed, and whether those representations are efficient in a quantifiable sense.

Pitkow joined BCM in 2013 and holds a joint appointment at Rice University as an assistant professor in the electrical and computer engineering department. He earned his Ph.D. in biophysics from Harvard University after completing his bachelor of arts degree in physics from Princeton University. He completed postdoctoral research fellowships at Columbia University’s Center for Theoretical Neuroscience and at the University of Rochester in the Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences. While at Harvard he was also a teaching fellow.

He has published his research in numerous scientific journals and has been an invited guest lecturer at university events.

Zong and Pitkow join the other six McNair Scholars announced since the program's first recruit in 2010, Dr. Ben Arenkiel. He was followed by Dr. Xiang Zhang, Dr. Jake Kushner, Dr. Melissa Bondy, Dr. Malgorzata Borowiak and Dr. Russel Ray.