The year 2020 has been a challenging time for all of humanity due to the COVID-19 pandemic. As a result, many researchers are conducting abundant research to fight against this awful virus. In the first half of 2020, a paper has been published in the international academic journal titled ‘Nature’, stating that by analysing data, researchers have successfully identified 332 kinds of protein-protein interaction involved in the coronavirus infection, and about 1/5 of them were targets of existing drugs or could be used for developing therapies for COVID-19. This paper was completed by an international team of about 100 researchers, of which Zhou Yuan, an alumna who graduated in 2017 from Statistics Programme of UIC, was a member of the research.

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After graduating from UIC, Zhou Yuan went to study Biostatistics at Georgetown University in the US. After obtaining her master's degree, she worked at the University of California, San Francisco, while her main work was to study the related mechanisms of basic biology by using statistical methods and to conduct statistical analysis based on the data obtained from the experiment.

Zhou Yuan participated in the paper entitled ‘A SARS-CoV-2 protein interaction map reveals targets for drug repurposing’. In this paper, the network of protein-protein interaction is drawn based on the research data, and according to this, 69 known candidate drugs (compounds) of potential COVID-19 respiratory diseases were found, which provided the possibility for obtaining therapeutic schemes of COVID-19 respiratory diseases. Zhou Yuan was mainly responsible for data analysis and visualization. She carried out statistical analysis and cluster analysis on the data obtained in the experiment, and provided the visualization diagram of the analysis results and drew the protein-protein interaction network diagram.

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Screenshot of the paper

Zhou Yuan explained that they set up a team on 24 January 2020 to start the research on the Novel Coronavirus. To find effective drugs as soon as possible, they worked in the laboratory day and night, racing against time. After hard work, it took only two months for them to complete the work that usually takes up to a year. This research provides a good theoretical basis for the follow-up study of the Novel Coronavirus.

Zhou Yuan describes how she has been lucky for this extraordinary experience in her life to participate in this research, to witness every member of the team shouldering crucial responsibility and devote their courage when the outbreak of an epidemic arrived.

After the completion of the study, Zhou Yuan continued her research on the Novel Coronavirus and later on, her team published another paper entitled ‘The Global Phosphorylation Landscape of SARS-CoV-2 Infection’ in the international academic journal ‘Cell’.

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Zhou Yuan's parents are college professors teaching Mathematics and Computer Science, respectively. Thus, under the influence of her parents, Zhou Yuan had a strong interest in statistics since her childhood. She then transformed her interest into professional studies in UIC and determined to take statistics as her career.

In her senior year, Zhou Yuan studied Uniform Design under the guidance of Prof Fang Kaitai, an internationally renowned statistician who is known as the “Father of Uniform Design”, and the whole process benefited Zhou Yuan a lot. Zhou Yuan explained that Prof Fang trained her learning and research ability, taught her how to think while conducting research and how to master new knowledge quickly in a short time, and those abilities have been useful to her.

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Zhou Yuan (left) and Prof Fang

Zhou Yuan says that the work in biostatistics solves the problems of biological research. However, due to the lack of a systematic biological basis, it was a challenge for her. Yet, her education at UIC provided her with a way to quickly supplement her knowledge of biology.

After accumulating professional knowledge of statistics at UIC, Zhou Yuan firmed up the direction for her future development. After graduation, with the recommendation of Prof Fang Kaitai, she went to Georgetown University for further study in Biostatistics. In her second semester of graduate school, Zhou Yuan successfully acquired the offer to work as a research assistant at Georgetown University, during which she participated in the research project on liver cancer and published a paper in BMC Medical Genomics.

Zhou Yuan's dream of learning statistics since childhood has also gradually come into reality. She plans to go for a doctoral degree after accumulating enough research experience.

From MPRO
Editors: Samuel Burgess, Zhang Fan, Xia Meng