Ru Zhang

Ru Zhang, Ph.D.

Ru's research employs cutting-edge technologies in green algae
and land plants to study how photosynthetic organisms
respond to high temperatures, with the ultimate goal
to engineer more heat-tolerant plants and algae for
improved agriculture production and biomass accumulation.

Dr. Ru Zhang, Principal Investigator

 Assistant Member, Donald Danforth Plant Science Center,  since September 2016

Education and trainings:
Postdoc, Department of Plant Biology, Carnegie Institution for Science, 2010-2016
University of Wisconsin-Madison, PhD, 2009
Nankai University, China, BS, 2005

About: Ru's research experience centers on photosynthesis and range from plant physiology/biochemistry to algal genomics to organelle evolution. During her PhD training at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, she worked with Dr. Thomas Sharkey using gas exchange and spectroscopic methods to study the effects of high temperature on photosynthesis in leaves of Arabidopsis and tobacco plants. During her postdoctoral training with Dr. Martin Jonikas and Dr. Arthur Grossman at the Carnegie Institution for Science, Ru continued to explore photosynthesis by developing high-throughput genotyping and quantitative phenotyping tools for the eukaryotic, unicellular green alga Chlamydomonas reinhardtii to identify photosynthesis-deficient algal mutants on a genome-wide scale. She also participated in the generation of a genome-saturating, indexed, mutant library of Chlamydomonas. The library could be used as both forward and reverse genetic platforms to dissect cellular processes under various conditions. In addition, she has worked on the photo-acclimation of the green amoeba Paulinella chromatophora (which has nascent “plastids” that evolved much more recently, 0.06 billion years ago) to gain insight into the evolution of photosynthetic organelles. She is passionate about how photosynthesis in plants/algae respond to abiotic stresses, especially heat stress. Her long-term career goal is to engineer photosynthesis for improved agricultural and biofuel production. Outside of the lab, Ru enjoys playing with her kids, cooking, swimming, and watching movies.

Research Team


Celine Xia

Lab Technician, since Jan 2020

M.S. Auburn University, Dec 2019
B.S. Huazhong Agricultural University, July 2017

About: Celine received her master’s degree in from Auburn University in 2019. Her research was improving Romaine lettuce growth in the greenhouse hydroponic systems. With high temperature and humidity in summer time, lettuce grew too fast in the greenhouse hydroponics systems, which caused calcium ion deficiency in the young growing tips. Physiological disorders like tipburn and bolting happened and damaged the lettuce marketable value. To mitigate tipburn and bolting, Celine increased the horizontal air flow speed in the DWC system and decreased root-zone solution temperature in NFT system to slow down growth rate to help calcium efficiently translocated to young leaves. At Zhang’s lab, Celine will work as a lab technician to start a hydroponics system in the greenhouse of Danforth plant science center. Celine likes travel, sports and music.



Huong Mai Nguyen

Postdoctoral Associate, since November 2019

Yokohama City University, PhD, 2018

Huong received her PhD in Life and Environmental science in March, 2018 from Yokohama City University, Japan. During her PhD, she studied on "Identification and functional analysis of novel chemical compounds enhancing plant abiotic stress responses" at Dr. Motoaki Seki's Lab, RIKEN Yokohama. She revealed several interesting chemicals and molecular mechanisms that enhance the tolerance of plant under high-salinity stress responses. In Zhang Lab, she will involve in a project that apply a novel combination of in silico and experimental approaches to predict and validate the structure and function of poorly-characterized and unannotated proteins in Arabidopsis thaliana, Setaria viridis and Chlamydomonas reinhardtii. In the free time, she likes playing with her children, cooking and exploring nearby.


Ningning Zhang


Postdoctoral Associate, since May 2017

Ph.D. Molecular Biosciences, Arkansas State University. (Graduated with the Outstanding Achievement Award in the Molecular Biosciences Ph.D. program.
M.S.  Biotechnology, Arkansas State University.
B.S. Bioengineering, Qindao Agicultural University.

About: Ningning received her PhD in Molecular Biosciences in May of 2017 by dissecting the O-glycosylation process of plant cell wall structural glycoproteins and reengineering the plant cell wall for improved biomass processability. She started in the Zhang Lab as a postdoctoral research associate in the same month to study how photosynthetic organisms respond to their environment by using cutting-edge technologies. Specifically, Ningning is using the unicellular green alga, Chlamydomonas reinhardtii, as a model system to better understand how photosynthetic cells sense and respond to high temperatures. A genome-saturating, indexed, algal mutant library and a quantitative phenotyping tool are used to conduct high-throughput genetic screening for mutants with interesting phenotypes. In her free time Ningning likes to work with plants, especially cacti. She also likes staying active by running frequently and playing pingpong.



Will McHargue

Laboratory Technician, Laboratory Manager, since November 2016

University of Missouri, Columbia
BS in Biological Engineering, 2016
Mathematics and Spanish Minor

Will received his bachelor's degree in biological engineering (emphasizing in biomedical engineering and biophotonics) from the University of Missouri, Columbia. During his time there, he was involved with several research teams including computational ecologists, herpetologists, and R&D engineering companies. In all of these positions, much of his work focused on computational data analysis and automated data collection pipelines.  In the summer of 2015, Will participated in the Danforth Center's Summer REU Program where he worked in Doug Allen's Lab investigation carbon fixation pathways in  soybeans using isotopic labeling and mass spectrometry technologies. Will started in the Zhang Lab in November of 2016 and will be working as a lab manager and lab technician while frequently focusing on bioinformatics pipelines and data analysis. Will enjoys running, swimming, and climbing. He additionally enjoys music and tinkering with electronics.


Erin Mattoon

Graduate Student, since April 2018

Cornell University, BS in Biological Sciences, 2017

About:  Erin received her Bachelor of Science degree in Biological Sciences from Cornell University in May 2017.  Her work there focused on the genetic aspects underlying meiotic recombination in maize.  In the summer of 2015, she was an REU intern where she studied the genetic similarities between plant interactions with mycorrhizal fungi and nitrogen-fixing bacteria.  She is now a first-year graduate student in the Plant and Microbial Biosciences program at Washington University. Erin rotated in the Zhang lab from Nov - Dec in 2017 and then decided to join the Zhang lab for her PhD in April 2018 to study algal heat responses. In her free time, Erin enjoys cooking, swimming, and exploring the local community.   



        Cheyenne Anderson

          Laboratory Technician, since September 2018

         Missouri Baptist University, BS in Biology, 2018, Biochemistry & Chemistry Minor

About: Cheyenne received her B.S. in Biology from Missouri Baptist University in May 2018. During her time there she was involved in a research team to develop a protocol to preserve long-term viability of the microalgal species, Chlorella protothecoides. Additionally, she served as a laboratory teaching assistant for genetics, general chemistry, and anatomy labs. In her free time, Cheyenne enjoys being active outdoors, playing tennis, travelling, and thrift shopping.   



Michelle Richards

Grants Specialist​, since July 2016

University of Missouri - Columbia, BSBA with Marketing Emphasis, Economics Minor

About: Michelle received her bachelor’s degree in Business Administration with an emphasis in Marketing and a minor in Economics from the University of Missouri-Columbia. She has worked in the administrative field for the past 10 years and has done everything from payroll processing to office management to assisting with grant proposal submissions. Michelle joined the Danforth Center in July of 2016 as an Administrative Assistant and now serves as a Grants Specialist for several of the labs here, including the Zhang lab. 


Eric Becker

     Eric Becker

     Position: Laboratory Technician

     Education:  University of Missouri, Columbia


  Eric is from the greater St. Louis area and received his bachelor's degree in biological engineering from the University of Missouri, Columbia in 2019. During his time there, Eric was a research assistant in a soybean genomics lab focused on the molecular genetics of plant stress tolerance and the application of genomic technologies for crop improvement. He was also a member of a biomedical research team contributing in the R&D for new and innovative medical devices. In his free time, Eric enjoys spending time in the outdoors, working out, reading, and exploring new places. 


Lab Alumni

   Jooyeon Jeong

   Position in Zhang Lab: 
Postdoctoral Associate, Nov 2018-Nov 2019
   Current Position: 
Postdoc at UIUC
Hanyang University, Korea, PhD, 2018

Jooyeon received her PhD in Life science in August of 2018 from Hanyang University, South Korea. During her PhD, she studied on chloroplast signal recognition particle pathway proteins that involved in transport and assembly of light harvesting protein by using CRISPR-Cas9 in Chlamydomonas reinhardtii. In Zhang Lab, she is now working on psychrophilic Chlamydomonas showing sustained cyclic electron flow (CEF) to understand the role and regulation of CEF. She'll also focus on the function of heat shock transcription factors in model Chlamydomonas reinhardtii by generating mutants and analyzing their phenotype. She likes to listen podcasts and sing. And she enjoys to visit Saint Louis Zoo!

Zachary Weber

​         Position:
         Laboratory Assistant, February 2019 to December 2019

         University of Missouri-St. Louis, BS in Biology, 2018

About: Zachary is from Southern Illinois. He graduated from the University of Missouri - St. Louis in December of 2018 with his BS in Biology. At his time there he also was a member of the Pierre Laclede Honors College. During his time there he helped gather information for a guide to spotting Lepidoptera in Missouri that feed on oak trees. Additionally, he also studied the variations between wild type and different mutant c. elegans. In his free time, Zachary writes movie reviews for the Brain Stew, a student/alumni publication of Pierre Laclede Honors College. He also likes to watch movies, be outdoors, travel, and find new restaurants. 

Sarah Stainbrook

Research Associate, October 2018 to May 2019

Ph.D. Biological Engineering, Northwestern University (expected June, 2018)
B.S Cell and Molecular Biology, Ohio University in Athens

About:  Her graduate work focuses on engineering the properties of the prototypical MAP Kinase pathway in yeast for use in biosensor diagnostics. In the Zhang lab, Sarah will use the grass Setaria viridis as a model organism for photosynthesis in C4 plants such as maize and sorghum. She will combine traditional genetic approaches with engineering techniques to improve the thermostability of C4 photosynthesis, making C4 plants more tolerant of high temperature stresses. In her free time, Sarah enjoys cooking, running, opera and knitting.

     Sarah Pardi

      Rotation Graduate Student, since January 2019

      Loyola Marymount University, BS in Biology, 2018
      Washington University in St. Louis, PMB grad student

About: Sarah is from the Bay Area in California. She received her Bachelor of Science degree in Biology (Cum Laude) from Loyola Marymount University in May 2018. There, her research focused on the synergistic affects of mixed populations of rhizobacteria on white sweet clover. In the summer of 2017, she was an REU intern at Harvard Forest where she studied the role of manganese in leaf litter decomposition along oxic-anoxic interfaces. She is now a first year graduate student in the Plant and Microbial Biosciences program at Washington University rotating in the Zhang lab, with an interest in gene regulation of algal heat response. Sarah is an Initiative to Maximize Student Development (IMSD) Scholar. In her free time, Sarah enjoys exploring new places, going on outdoor adventures, and playing tennis.  

    Rachel Jouni

    Rotation Graduate Student, since March 2019

    University of Florida, BS Biology
    Washington University in St. Louis, PMB grad student

​About: Rachel is from Florida and graduated with a Bachelor's degree in Biology from the University of Florida. During her time there she studied evolutionary genetics in Drosophila with a focus on host-virus interactions. In between undergrad and grad school she worked in a tomato breeding lab with a focus on how volatile compounds affect flavor in tomato. She is currently in the PMB PhD. program at Washington University in St. Louis, and her rotation in the Zhang lab focuses on studying the heat response in algae. In her free time she enjoys eating and exploring St. Louis.  


     Emily Davenport

      Position in Zhang Lab: 
Rotation Graduate Student (July 2018 - September 2018)

      Current Position: WUSTL Graduate Student

      Education: Bowling Green State University, BS, MS

About: Emily is from NW Ohio on the Lake Erie shores. She graduated from Bowling Green State University with her BS and MS. Her Master's project was a diel study of gene regulation of an in-situ cyanobacterial harmful algal bloom in Lake Erie. After her Master's, she took a job with UM in Ann Arbor at the NOAA Great Lakes Environmental Research Lab where she helped introduce the first freshwater Environmental Sample Processor (ESP) into western Lake Erie in an effort to monitor microcystins in Lake Erie. She is now a first year at WashU rotating through the Zhang Lab, with an interest in using bioinformatics to study cell responses and gene regulations. In her spare time I enjoy any outdoor activity, cooking, camping, painting, and karaoke. 


James Eckhardt

 Position in Zhang Lab: Laboratory Technician (January 2018 - July 2018)

 Current Position: Graduate Student at UC-Riverside

 Education:  Gustavus Adolphus College, BA (2017); Graduate Student, UC Riverside

About: James received his bachelor’s degree in Biology (emphasizing in plant biology) from Gustavus Adolphus College in December 2017. While at Gustavus, James conducted research on plant ecology emphasizing statistical modeling and will continue using mass spectrometry to study plant proteomics. During the summer of 2017, he worked in the Zhang lab to optimize the use of environmental photobioreactors to better understand the effects of heat stress on Chlamydomonas reinhardtii. James sails, mountain bikes, camps and climbs mountains in his free time. He is hoping to summit his 30th mountain by summer’s end.



     Andrew Paton

     Position in Zhang Lab: 
REU Student (May 2018 - August 2018)

     Current Position: Undergraduate student at University of Arizona

     Education: University of Arizona, undergraduate student

About: Andrew is working on his bachelor's degrees in Biochemistry and Molecular/Cellular Biology from the University of Arizona. There he works on tomato developmental genes and patterns in the Frans Tax lab. Afterwards, he plans to pursue graduate school to study algal biofuels. He is excited to be the summer 2018 REU intern for the Zhang lab and to learn about heat stress responses in Chlamydomonas. In his free time Andrew likes to bike, write, act, and scuba dive.


Varun Devraj

Position in Zhang Lab: STARS Intern (June 2018 - July 2018)

Current Position:  Highschool  student at Marquette Highschool

Education: Highschool student at Marquette Highschool
                       Attending Princeton University in Fall 2019

Varun is a rising senior at Marquette High School in Chesterfield, Missouri. He was selected to participate in the STARS (Students and Teachers As Research Scientists) program, a six week program that pairs a student with a research mentor in the St. Louis area. In the Zhang lab, Varun is working on using the IDEA Spectrophotometer and environmental Photobioreactors to probe various photosynthetic parameters, found from chlorophyll fluorescence and electrochromic shift, in wild type Chlamydomonas reinhardtii. In his free time, Varun likes to read, travel, play tennis, and cook.


Photo May 17, 1 14 42 PM

     Grace Conway

     Position in Zhang Lab: High School Student (April 2018 - May 2018)

     Current Position: Undergraduate at University of Mississippi

     Education:  University of Mississippi, undergraduate student



The Zhang laboratory is currently recruiting a postdoctoral researcher. If you are interested, please apply at the Danforth website.