Breakthrough Discovery Symposium II

Tina Findley, M.D.
Department of Pediatrics
Chair, Breakthrough Discovery Symposium II

Dr. Tina Findley is an Associate Professor in the Division of Neonatal-Perinatal Medicine Department of Pediatrics. A native Houstonian, Dr. Findley completed her medical degree and residency training at the University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio, followed by fellowship training in neonatology at UTHealth Houston, where she joined as faculty in 2016. Interested in translational research in newborn diseases treated in the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU), she established a NICU biorepository in 2020. Her research primarily delves into examining the impact of chronic hypoxia on the heart and brain in babies with congenital heart disease, with specific emphasis on understanding sex differences.

Matthew DeBerge, Ph.D.
Assistant Professor
Department of Anesthesiology
Inflammatory links between cardiovascular disease and neurodegeneration

A native of Chicago, Dr. Matthew DeBerge obtained a BSc from Illinois State University. He then joined the Department of Physiology at the Geisel School of Medicine at Dartmouth College to complete his Ph.D., where he studied immunopathology during respiratory viral infection. After completing his Ph.D. studies, he joined the Department of Pathology at the Feinberg School of Medicine at Northwestern University for postdoctoral studies in acute cardiac injury and transplantation biology. In 2023, as an Assistant Professor, he joined the Department of Anesthesiology, Critical Care, and Pain Medicine at the University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston. The primary focus of his laboratory is the physiology of inflammation and how dysregulation of inflammation links cardiovascular disease to neurodegeneration.

Junchen Liu, Ph.D.
Assistant Professor
Department of Integrative Biology and Pharmacology
KRAS spatiotemporal dynamics: sphingolipid as a novel therapeutic target

Dr. Junchen Liu is an Assistant Professor at the Department of Integrative Biology and Pharmacology. Dr. Liu obtained his PhD from Texas A&M University in 2017. During his PhD research, Dr. Liu used various mouse genetic models and molecular tools to decode the functions of fibroblast growth factor receptors (FGFRs) in cardiovascular development, tumor angiogenesis, and oncogenesis. Dr. Liu joined Dr. John Hancock’s lab at UTHealth as a postdoc in 2017, where he expanded research interest from classical tyrosine kinase receptors to the downstream signaling nodes composed of key small GTPases, including KRAS. Dr. Liu was recently promoted to Assistant Professor, and his lab combines various mouse tumor models with techniques including high-resolution light imaging, electron microscopy, lipidomics, and CRISPR screening to study how interactions with defined membrane lipids, including sphingolipids exquisitely regulate membrane localization and nanoscale organization of KRAS. These techniques enable the lab to resolve KRAS biology at molecular, cellular, and whole animal levels.

Zhenfu Wen, Ph.D.
Assistant Professor
Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences
Neural representation of threat and safety in the human brain

Dr. Zhenfu Wen is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at UTHealth. He obtained his Ph.D. in Pattern Recognition and Intelligent Systems from South China University of Technology in 2019. Dr. Wen then went on to his post-doctoral training in computations, machine learning, and multimodal imaging analyses, examining the brain circuits of fear and its regulation in healthy populations and patients diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder and anxiety disorders. His post-doctoral training was conducted in the Department of Psychiatry at New York University Grossman School of Medicine, where he then rose to junior faculty in 2022. He joined UTHealth as a junior faculty in 2023. His research focuses on combining human neuroimaging tools and machine learning models to understand neural representations of the learning and memory associated with conditioned fear and its extinction and to study how these representations are altered in fear and anxiety-related disorders.

Xiaotian Zhang, Ph.D.
Assistant Professor
Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology
Transcription hijacking in acute myeloid leukemia – The interplay of biological condensate and developmental genes

Dr. Xiaotian Zhang is a tenure-track assistant professor in the Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology at the UTHealth Houston, McGovern Medical School. His research is pivotal in understanding gene expression regulation in cancer, with a keen focus on acute myeloid leukemia (AML) and pre-leukemia conditions like myelodysplastic syndrome (MDS). His work is bifurcated into two main streams: investigating the role of 3D chromatin structure in gene regulation and exploring how transcriptional condensation is hijacked in cancer.

During his doctoral training under stem cell biologist Margaret Goodell, Dr. Zhang contributed significantly to understanding leukemogenesis, particularly illustrating the synergy between mutant DNA methylation modulators. He has been credited with developing highly efficient and specific targeted DNA methylation modulation tools, leveraging the CRISPR/Cas9 system.

Dr. Zhang’s unique independent postdoctoral fellowship at the Van Andel Research Institute in Grand Rapids, Michigan, allowed him to freely explore the interplay between DNA methylation and 3D genomic interactions in normal development and hematopoietic malignancies. His studies provided insights into the role of cis-regulatory elements in healthy and malignant hematopoiesis and began to unravel the function of the NPM1c protein in leukemia.

His current work has led to a novel understanding of the mutant NPM1 protein as a transcriptional amplifier on chromatin. This groundbreaking discovery shifts paradigms in the study of NPM1-mutated AML, one of the most common AML subtypes.