The Shibo Zhang Endowed Fund for Undergraduate Research

by Peggy G. Lemaux

When I lost one of my former senior researchers, Dr. Shibo Zhang, to a tragic accident in December 2007, his family and I chose to use the money given in his memory by friends and colleagues to establish the Shibo Zhang Endowed Fund for Undergraduate Research. This was a fitting tribute to someone who considered it a privilege to work with undergraduates at Cal while completing his research.

This seemed like an idea that I was sure Shibo would have been proud to have bear his name. He, like the rest of the us, knew that the College of Natural Resources has some of the best and brightest undergraduate students in higher education. But they often need an opportunity to get into a professor’s laboratory to participate in a project. The Zhang Fellowship is intended to make some of those dreams a reality.

Background on Dr. Shibo Zhang

Dr. Zhang received his Bachelor's and Master's degrees in China in forestry and his Ph.D. in the field of maize tissue culture from the most prestigious academic institution for science in China, Academica Sinica in Beijing PRC. In 1990, he took a postdoctoral position with one of the world's experts in cereal tissue culture and the “father” of Golden Rice, Dr. Ingo Potrykus, at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich Switzerland. From Zurich, Dr. Zhang went to Dr. Miriam Sticklin's laboratory at Michigan State University where he continued his work with cereal transformation and the use of cultured meristematic tissue. Recognizing the potential importance of this work to the next generation of transformation technologies for cereals, I invited Dr. Zhang to join the Lemaux laboratory in 1995 where he developed new methods for engineering cereals, like barley, wheat, maize and oats, resulting in patents that have been licensed to several companies.

Besides these practical objectives, Dr. Zhang also focused on attempting to define the molecular nature of totipotency in cereals. He identified molecular markers, which could be used to probe the biological basis of in vitro cultured tissue. During this period, Dr. Zhang became very interested in the emerging field of genomics and realized that computer skills would be essential to excel in the field plant biology in the future. So, he taught himself computer programming and database design skills. In a move, which testified to Dr. Zhang’s tenacity and skills, he then obtained positions as a professional software engineer for two companies in the Bay area. Because his goal was always to return to biology and apply his computer skills to genomics and bioinformatics, he continued to work during that time in the Lemaux laboratory on weekends. When the .com boom turned to bust and he was laid off from his software engineering job, he returned to UC Berkeley, as an Assistant Research Specialist, focusing on bioinformatics in the Feldman, Lemaux and Buchanan laboratories.

During his time at Cal, Dr. Zhang mentored a number of undergraduates, two of whom ended up as co-authors on papers. Dr. Zhang was a very creative individual, and he attempted to pass on his enthusiasm for science and its exploration to those he mentored. This led him into areas where he was "breaking new ground" in the fields in which he practiced. I am sure he would wish the same for the Zhang Fellows.