NPRE graduate student gains Beckman Institute Graduate Fellowship
Zhikun Cai, a PhD student in Nuclear, Plasma, and Radiological Engineering at Illinois and member of NPRE Assistant Prof. Yang Zhang's group, has been chosen as a Beckman Institute Graduate Fellow for 2017.
The Beckman Institute Graduate Fellows Program offers Illinois graduate students the opportunity to pursue interdisciplinary research at the Institute. Research projects must involve at least one Beckman faculty member who carries out research at Beckman in addition to a second Illinois faculty member, and preference is given to those proposals that are interdisciplinary and involve the active participation of two Beckman faculty members from two different research groups.
Cai works with NPRE Assistant Prof. Yang Zhang, from Beckman’s Autonomous Materials Systems Group, and Chemistry Prof. Martin Gruebele, from the Nanoelectronics and Nanomaterials Group. They are interested in studying the energy landscape of liquids and proteins using a kinetic approach they developed and extensive molecular dynamics simulations guided by experimental neutron scattering measurements. The goal is to improve the understanding of protein dynamics in vivo and to engineer the protein energy landscape by restricting the conformation space, which may lead to new catalytic applications and bio-preservation techniques.
Cai’s research work focuses on understanding long timescale phenomena such as slow relaxation of viscous liquids and protein folding. Using statistical mechanics, the central question he wants to answer is how to establish a link between neutron scattering experimental measurements and the energy landscape concept. Applying the developed theoretic approach to study proteins dynamics under confinement is an important component of his dissertation work.
Cai earned a bachelor’s in physics from the School of the Gifted Yong in University of Science and Technology of China in 2013 and a master’s from NPRE in 2016. He passed his preliminary exam in April 2017. He expects to receive his PhD degree in about one year.
After graduation, he is interested in pursuing an academic job in academic institutes and labs, or a research scientist position in a high-tech company.
“I would like to express my gratitude to my advisor Prof. Yang Zhang and Prof. Martin Gruebele for their guidance and support,” Cai said. “Also, I want to thank (the NPRE) PhD program. Without the strong support from our department, this fellowship would not have been possible.”