Healing Hearts: Shuang Zhang

by Sean Hargadon

Shuang Zhang

Heart disease is the No. 1 killer in the United States. Shuang Zhang is exploring what happens to heart cells in the aftermath of a heart attack, specifically the critical role of macrophages in cardiac repair.

After cardiac injuries, heart cells called cardiomyocytes go through apoptosis, programmed cell death that helps the tissue heal, and necrosis, unexpected cell death triggered by the injury. Macrophages, immune cells responsible for debris clearance, engulf and ingest the dying cellular debris, removing it from the injured organ to “create a better environment for the tissue to heal,” says Zhang, a fifth-year student in the Driskill Graduate Program in the Life Sciences. (Read more about Zhang's research.)

She studies inflammation and repair in cardiovascular disease in the lab of Edward Thorp, assistant professor of pathology. Her main projects look at how to promote macrophages to better clear dying heart cells and how to increase the metabolism in macrophages to help the inflammation-resolution process. The goal is to develop complementary therapeutic approaches to facilitate that process.

Zhang, who earned a predoctoral fellowship from the American Heart Association, plans to pursue a postdoctoral fellowship and then work in drug development and disease management. “I’m drawn to the mechanisms of disease and how to develop new therapies to treat those diseases,” says Zhang, whose mother is a neonatologist.

Zhang came to the United States from Jinan, China, in 2010, three years into her undergraduate studies, as part of an exchange program. She completed her degree in biology at East Tennessee State University before enrolling at Northwestern, where she earned a prestigious Presidential Fellowship. The two-year collaborative program brings together a group of graduate students from across the University for quarterly presentations, informal lunches and an annual retreat.

“I got to meet a lot of outstanding students,” says Zhang — most of them outside her career trajectory. “It’s a really vibrant and collaborative environment, and everyone is really smart and talented and fun to work with. I think they will become lifetime friends.”

Tell us what you think. E-mail comments or questions to the editors at