Albert Zhou

Albert graduated from the University of Maryland, Baltimore County (UMBC) with a BS in Biochemistry and Molecular Biology and as a Meyerhoff Scholar, a program that promotes diversity in STEM. He is currently an MD/PhD student in the Medical Scientist Training Program (MSTP) at the University of Maryland School of Medicine. He earned a PhD in Epidemiology and Human Genetics, where his dissertation research used bioinformatics and reverse vaccinology approaches to identify severe malaria vaccine targets. He said severe malaria, primarily caused by Plasmodium falciparum, has a high case fatality rate in children in sub-Saharan Africa. There are limited treatment options and no licensed prophylactic vaccine to prevent severe disease, an intervention that could significantly reduce the mortality in susceptible individuals. 

His research project for the Kean Fellowship focuses on RIFINs, the largest multigene family in P. falciparum. Albert said these proteins are expressed on infected erythrocyte membranes and play roles in severe malaria pathogenesis and immune evasion. He will perform comparative transcriptomics using next-generation sequencing data of parasites from clinical samples to elucidate cerebral malaria pathogenesis. He hypothesizes that subjects with cerebral malaria will have increased expression of a subset of RIFINs that bind to inhibitory receptors on immune cells compared to controls.

Albert aims to complete a dermatology residency and deepen his understanding of the skin manifestations of tropical diseases. Early identification of such infections can reduce morbidity for those who lack access to quality medical care. He also likes to travel and educate healthcare workers on skin conditions and procedures. 

Identifying Expressed Virulent RIFIN Variant Surface Antigens in Cerebral Malaria Infections in Malawian Children
University of Malawi College of Medicine

What does the Kean Fellowship mean to you?
The Kean Fellowship is an invaluable opportunity to learn medicine in resource-limited settings, network and gain insight into global health research. Diagnosing and treating patients in Malawi will enhance my communication and clinical skills, and the presentations of diseases endemic to the developing world will add to my medical knowledge. Caring for patients at the Queen Elizabeth Hospital will also provide valuable insight into how clinicians contribute to patient care in the developing world and will make me a better clinician. Such an experience continues to fuel my desire to serve populations facing major health disparities.

What do you anticipate learning?
I anticipate learning about clinical trials, with a goal of developing an appreciation of the monumental efforts to screen, enroll and care for children in these studies. I will also collect blood samples, obtain patient histories, perform physical exams and execute treatment plans, which are critical clinical skills that need to be continuously sharpened. In terms of research, I am eager to learn about ongoing bioinformatic analyses by my Malawian peers at the Blantyre Malaria Project. Obviously, I also look forward to learning about the local Malawian food, cultures and customs!

What interests you about tropical medicine and what problems are you interested in solving?
Participating in the care of a hospitalized child with severe malaria during my graduate research was a formative experience for me. It sparked a realization that there are millions of children contending with life-threatening infections globally and that there is a desperate need to develop vaccines, point-of-care diagnostics and targeted therapies for vulnerable populations afflicted by high-burden endemic diseases. Tropical medicine is an interdisciplinary field, which integrates my skills in data science, epidemiology and microbiology along with my passion for clinical care.  By pursuing a residency in dermatology, I feel that I can bring a unique perspective to tropical medicine. Since endemic diseases in the developing world exhibit an array of skin manifestations, this global health experience will better equip me to serve both domestic and international communities.