Yang Zhang

Species-specific vocalizations are important for the survival and social interactions of both humans and vocal animals. My research projects focus on understanding the underlying neural mechanisms for species-specific vocalization processing in the brain. We use a unique nonhuman primate, the common marmoset (Callithrix jacchus, New World primate), as our animal model. The marmoset is one of the two key laboratory primate models, and provides several important advantages over other nonhuman primates: a rich vocal repertoire, a high reproductive rate while in captivity, a relatively short lifespan, a similar hearing range as humans, and a smooth brain allowing easy access to all parts of the cerebral cortex. We demonstrated the continuity and divergence of the dual auditory pathways in the primate brains along the evolutionary path and highlight human-specific brain specialization for speech and language processing, suggesting that the putative neural networks supporting human speech and language processing might have emerged early in primate evolution. Moreover, we revealed the existence of voice patches in the auditory cortex of marmosets, and support the notion that similar cortical architectures are adapted for recognizing communication signals for both vocalizations and faces in different primate species. These findings are significant because they will give us a unique opportunity to provide critical new evidence to modify and expand current models of speech processing, and will open exciting avenues of research in understanding the roles of the auditory dorsal and ventral neural networks in vocal perception and production. Ultimately, understanding these mechanisms will provide new diagnostic and therapeutic avenues for people with speech and communication disorders. I conducted my research in Dr. Xiaoqin Wang’s lab in the Department of Biomedical Engineering. Our lab is devoted to understanding the neural basis of auditory perception and vocal communication in a naturalistic environment.

Questions & Answers

Why did you choose Johns Hopkins for your work?


Johns Hopkins is surely a top university with world-recognized reputation. During my Ph.D. training, I had an opportunity to conduct research at JHU for a short period of time as a visiting student. During that period, I was able to experience the research environment at JHU and to have a knowledge of what equipment and facilities are available here. Also during that period, I had a clearer picture of my future career path. Another important reason I chose JHU is because of the great mentorship of Dr. Xiaoqin Wang, my postdoc mentor. Dr. Wang provides us support in every aspect to test our research ideas, and most importantly, he encourages independence. I am confident that the training I have received at JHU, particularly in Dr. Wang’s lab, makes me a strong competitor in my field.


What does receiving this award mean to you personally and professionally? Do you have any connection with the particular award you received?


I was very excited to know my work has been rewarded. It is a great motivation for me to know that my work is being recognized by others, and I am reassured that my work is on the right track. And this award is surely a strong add-on to my CV. It proves the importance of my work, and I’m sure it will benefit me greatly in my job-hunting process in the near future.


What contributed to your project’s success?


The thing that I really like about doing science is that all my projects are driven by my own interests, instead of following other people’s thoughts. My mentor, Dr. Xiaoqin Wang, provides me the freedom to design and conduct my own experiments; the entire process is just enjoyable to me. I have gained substantial skills in a broad aspect, including biomedical engineering, computer science, neuroscience and psychology, during both my Ph.D. and postdoc training. These skills provide me flexibility to address a scientific question from different aspects, making my results more solid and convincing and surely contributing to my project’s success. Another key factor to my project’s success is that Wang Lab is a successful and well-funded lab with all the resources needed. Conducting research can be very money-consuming. Without sufficient funding support from Wang Lab, I wouldn’t be able to access and use the equipment and facilities as much as needed. Wang Lab also provides me with the unique model animal, the marmoset, used in this project, which is a very precious resource.


What thoughts do you have about Young Investigators’ Day itself, as a celebration of the roles students and fellows play in research at Johns Hopkins?


Young Investigators’ Day has been a tradition for JHU medical school for more than 40 years. It is not only a celebration of research success accomplished by students and young fellows, but also an encouragement for them to pursue further success in the future. Doing science is a long journey, and it sometimes can be tough too. Therefore, it’s good to know that there are other people along the journey too. We share our stories with each other, we exchange our thoughts both about science and life, and support each other along the way. And I think Young Investigators’ Day provides a wonderful opportunity to make all these happen.


What has been your best/most memorable experience while at Johns Hopkins?


I use a primate (marmoset monkey) in my research. A couple times, the monkeys escaped when I opened the cage. Capturing an escaping monkey is a battle of wits and courage. I usually chase the escaping monkey to a corner of the room so he/she has no place to go, and then capture with a net. And sometimes I even need help from my colleagues. The funniest thing is when we are trying to capture the escaping monkey, and all the other monkeys in the cages are cheering “whee whee.” After years of battles of wits and courage with monkeys, I’m very good at doing it now. There was once an escaping monkey that just refused to go to a corner, and he jumped between the tops of two cages back and forth. I observed the jumping paths for a few seconds, and captured him right in the air.


What are your plans over the next year or so? Graduating, looking for faculty positions, etc.?


Looking for faculty positions.


Tell me something interesting about yourself that makes you unique. Do you have any special hobbies, interests or life experiences?


I feel I’m very lucky because the work I’m doing happens to be something I really love. What you would love is largely determined by your personality. For me, I love trying new things. For example, I love cooking. Instead of cooking the dishes that I’m already perfect at doing, I kept trying new dishes. Now I can not only do Chinese dishes, I also succeed in Japanese and Korean styles, and I keep trying to make dishes from all over the world. Another thing for me is I’m not easily frustrated by failures, and I won’t easily give up. I think my personality makes me perfect to be a scientist. At work, I’m always highly motivated to test new ideas, to try new methods. And if something goes wrong, I’m always patient enough to work things out. Life and work are mixed together for me, and I enjoy the way they are. At home, I talk with my family about my work and science in general all the time. And my brain keeps working even during sleep — some of my research ideas are exactly the products of dreams.