Y. George Zheng, an associate professor in the College of Pharmacy who develops new drug molecules and therapeutic strategies to fight cancer, teaches students medicinal chemistry principles and tactics to enable great new discoveries.
Where did you earn degrees and what are your current responsibilities at UGA?
I received my bachelor’s and master’s degrees in chemistry from Peking University in China. Then, I came to the United States for graduate school and earned my Ph.D. in chemistry from the University of Miami. After graduation, I did my postdoctoral training at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine.
I am currently an associate professor in the department of pharmaceutical and biomedical sciences in the College of Pharmacy. My current responsibilities at UGA include teaching graduates and undergraduates, directing scientific research, and serving on various faculty committees at the department, college and university levels.
When did you come to UGA and what brought you here?
I joined UGA as an associate professor in the summer of 2013. There were multiple reasons for my decision, the foremost being the excellent research and teaching environment on campus. Students at UGA are brilliant. The campus is home to outstanding facilities and resources that improve my research projects. The wide spectrum of physical and life science programs provides nice opportunities to collaborate with other colleagues on campus and in the surrounding area. On a personal note, my family and I enjoy the beautiful environment, with trees and flowers everywhere in Athens.
What are your favorite courses and why?
My favorite course is medicinal chemistry because it is representative of cutting-edge pharmaceutical science. Integrating organic chemistry into drug development is fascinating but also challenging to students. It is my pleasure to guide students through the challenging learning process.
What interests you about your field?
My utmost interest is to develop new drug molecules and new therapeutic strategies to tackle cancer. Cancer is a highly devastating disease, and human beings are very vulnerable in the face of cancer. I’ve seen a number of close friends and family members who suffered from and even died of cancer. Working on cancer biology and cancer therapy makes me feel obligated to contribute something important to the welfare of the society.
What are some highlights of your career at UGA?
My time at UGA is still quite short, but one particular highlight is that I was recognized by the provost as one of UGA’s “Super Research Stars” in 2015. In the past three years my group has published more than 15 research and review articles in prestigious journals. We are one of the leading labs in the world in developing epigenetic inhibitors and chemical probes.
How does your research or scholarship inspire your teaching, and vice versa?
Education and science are constantly evolving. My research helps me to teach students with up-to-date scientific knowledge and technology. Students need to learn fundamental principles, as they are the building blocks for new great discoveries. The research projects in the lab prepare students with hands-on research skills and experience, which sparks their interest in scientific pursuit and prompts them to apply the theories they learn in classrooms to resolve challenging problems in reality.
What do you hope students gain from their classroom experience with you?
I hope my students undertake new learning endeavors with passion and curiosity. For freshman students, I emphasize the necessity of scientific fundamentals. For senior students, I challenge them with scientific problems and capstone projects.
Describe your ideal student.
My ideal student is the one who will be able to master the fundamental materials well, think critically, go above and beyond, and be self-motivated.
Favorite place to be/thing to do on campus is...
I enjoy going to the Ramsey Center. After a strenuous workout, I feel invigorated and motivated. Not to mention, exercise saliently improves my work efficiency.
Beyond the UGA campus, I like to...
I enjoy gatherings and chatting with my family and friends. I like to travel to amazing places in the world.
Community/civic involvement includes...
As a parent of two lovely girls, I do volunteer activities at Oconee schools. It is fun to watch and help kids grow and learn. This also gives me the opportunity to introduce my own research to other parents in the community. Additionally, I volunteered as a principal to organize Chinese language teaching activities for kids in Athens.
Favorite book/movie (and why)?
I like reading history books, such as “The World History” written by C.J.H. Hayes. There are a lot of fun stories documented in history books. The successful scientific discoveries in history embrace countless precious tips of wisdom. Looking at what humans have done and experienced in the past sharpens our vision to identify the most important scientific problems in the contemporary world and prompts ideas to develop new theories and technologies for the future.
Proudest moment at UGA?
I was very honored to learn that the medicinal chemistry class I taught with professor Scott Pegan was evaluated by the Pharmaceutical Sciences Advisory Board as one of the best classes in the bachelor’s program of pharmaceutical sciences. My utmost endeavor is to empower young students, and I am very pleased to know that students enjoy my class.
(Originally published Sept. 4, 2016)