Santa Clara University


New Faculty Join Bioengineering Program

Jonathan Zhang (left) and Prashanth Asuri Photo: Heidi Williams

The School of Engineering is happy to welcome two new faculty members to the Bioengineering Program this fall, Prashanth Asuri and Zhiwen (Jonathan) Zhang.

After receiving his Ph.D. from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI), Asuri held a research position at Solidus Biosciences where he developed high-throughput predictive cell-based assays for screening small molecules and facilitating the metabolic toxicity analysis of drug candidates. He later spent two years as a post-doctoral researcher at University of California, Berkeley, applying biomolecular and material approaches to obtain a better understanding of the conditions and molecular mechanisms for self-renewal and neuronal differentiation of human pluripotent stem cells.

“This is my dream job,” said Asuri of his new position at Santa Clara University. “Rather than staying behind the scenes writing grants, analyzing data, and relating to people through papers or presentations, or solving other people’s problems in industry, I want to help train the next generation of engineers. Situated at the interface of many disparate disciplines, the field of bioengineering applies engineering principles to provide unique insights into real-world problems in medicine and biology. There is a crucial need for active researchers in this rapidly advancing discipline, and there is also a growing need for educators who will nurture and train bioengineers and scientists by providing education through efforts both in the classroom and on cutting-edge research projects. With my combined experiences in industry and academia, I feel uniquely qualified to help students to explore and evaluate future career options in both these sectors.”

Program Director Yuling Yan agrees, “Dr. Asuri brings a wide range of experience to our program. Aside from his background in industry and research, he is very encouraging to students and brings strong team-building and problem-solving skills to the classroom. We are delighted to have him with us.”

Also joining the Program this fall is Dr. Zhiwen (Jonathan) Zhang. “The theme for my research,” said Zhang, “is bioengineering toward medicine. The idea is to engineer novel materials—particularly proteins and peptides—and devices and apply them to study basic biological and medical questions that ultimately lead to drug discovery.”

Zhang’s long-term goal is to find a cure for the malfunctioning proteins that are the cause of so many diseases. At the present time, he is studying how “superbugs” have evolved their proteins to become immune to antiobiotics. “Living things are smart and they have developed an anti-antibiotic capacity. We are running out of the arsenal to fight these superbugs, so we really need to get onto that. I’m using engineering as a tool to study the mechanism through which proteins evolve and mutate; once we know how that is done, we can use engineering to design new molecules, or drugs, to fight the bad proteins.”

Zhang, who received his Ph.D. from the University of Texas at Austin, did postdoctoral research at The Scripps Research Institute and taught medicinal chemistry and protein engineering in the College of Pharmacy at UT Austin before coming to Santa Clara, is excited by the possibilities for collaboration afforded at SCU. “With the biodevices being created here by Yuling and Ashley [Kim], I can see more; and with my molecules, they can do more with their devices. There are so many other faculty doing fascinating stuff here, definitely sparks can be generated,” he said.

Zhang also looks forward to encouraging students to start early doing research in his lab. “Research is not limited to a single experiment; you have to solve lots of problems. I enjoy teaching students not to be afraid, to identify, analyze, and find solutions, to speak properly and hone their presentation and writing skills, and to work with others in the lab. Those skills are necessary in finding a great position and starting a career.

“At Santa Clara,” he continued, “I’m expecting great collaborations and great students—both undergraduate and graduate. The mission here is clear, the students know what they want, and I know what I can give; it’s the perfect environment for getting the best out of us all.”