Mallory Nilles –– Staff writer
“Chicken feet,” professor Hailiang Joshua Zhu said, holding up two Expo markers, a pencil, and a rubber eraser in proper tetrahedral formation. The class laughs as he fumbles to keep the “structure” intact while he rotates the bonds.
“Have you smelled this molecule before? Maybe the smell of this one is not so good,” Zhu laughs.
“One time, when I was in undergrad, I did this experiment and it blew up,” Zhu says, gesturing an explosion with his hands. “I didn’t try it again.”
When it comes to organic and biochemistry, Zhu never fails to make his students laugh while teaching one of the most difficult and grueling chemistry courses in many students’ undergraduate education. After this year, upper-level chemistry at Dordt University will never be the same.
Zhu, associate professor of chemistry, announced he will leave after the completion of the spring 2023 semester in the hopes of pursuing a more research-oriented position at another university. Though Zhu had many offers, he has unofficially chosen to take his career to the University of Mississippi School of Pharmacy in Oxford, Mississippi. There, he plans to work in medicinal chemistry alongside graduate students and post-docs.
Growing up on a farm in China with his mother, father, and two older sisters, Zhu’s interest in chemistry started at a young age.
“I was very curious about Chinese traditional medicine,” Zhu said. “I wanted to know why those kinds of herbs and plants affected our bodies. What’s the real thing behind [the plants] that gives them that effect?”
In his undergraduate years at Lanzhou University in China, Zhu studied chemistry, moving on to get his master’s in organic chemistry there as well, graduating in 2012. In 2013, Zhu moved to the United States to pursue even more education in a Ph.D. program at Georgia State University. There, he worked with sugars and peptides, using organic chemistry and biochemistry to synthesize sugars and sugar-modified peptides to study their functions.
Before officially graduating, Zhu found Dordt through the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities (CCCU).
“I was so interested in Christian higher education,” Zhu said. “I still am, but I want to pursue more research in my later career.”
Zhu came to Dordt in 2017, later receiving his official doctorate in 2018.
Zhu has researched many different topics: multivalent peptide drugs, using sugars to stabilize bivalirudin, synthesis of alkaloids, among others. Within the last year, Zhu has undertaken a new research focus: the cysteine-cysteine chemokine receptor type 5 (CCR5).
CCR5 is mysterious in its mechanisms, though. Zhu “[wants] to view the sugar-modified peptide library to see how other sugars—as well as sulfate groups—are involved in signaling pathways of immune cells.”
CCR5 is an exciting topic for many in the field of health sciences. According to the National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI), “CCR5 is undoubtedly the main human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) co-receptor, involved in virus entry and cell-to cell spread” (Lopalco, 2010). Despite its benefit in preventing HIV, “CCR5 contributes to tumor progression in several hematological cancers.”
“[CCR5] is involved in a lot of disease pathways, like inflammation, cancer, and HIV. But right now, the problem is that we don’t know the detailed signaling pathways for them, so we can’t develop drugs from there [yet],” Zhu said.
In the later steps of the project, Zhu plans to examine the signaling pathways on live cells and how sugars are involved in binding processes to cell-surface receptors. With so much going on, Zhu has a strict philosophy that gives him a work-life balance.
“My philosophy is during the workdays, I work really hard,” Zhu said. “But on the weekends I relax hard.”
Zhu is more than genius in the chem lab, though. Over the six years he’s been here, Zhu perfectly exemplified what it means to be a professor at Dordt. As each student walks into the classroom, Zhu greets them with a smile on his face, also asking how they’re doing. He has an open-door policy that goes beyond the typical “open door:” if he’s in his office, a student can walk in. Despite how busy he is writing research proposals and grading students’ work, he will gladly put everything aside to help a student in need.
“He’s one of the most personable professors I’ve met,” junior chemistry major Noah Mulder said. “Another thing that stands out about him is that outside of class, he will take the time to go over the material and make sure you understand it.”
It’s no doubt Zhu impacted his students, especially those working closely alongside him.
“I have really appreciated his hands-off mentorship style, letting me learn from my own mistakes and grow from them, but also being available for any questions or issues I have had in my work,” Anna Rediger said, also mentioning how Zhu has helped shape what she wants to do in the future. Rediger is a senior chemistry major who has researched with Zhu over the past two years.
Under the stress of so many deadlines and commitments, Zhu continually prioritizes his students, and it shows in what he says he will miss most about Dordt: his students. It’s no doubt they will miss him, too.