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Zach J

- Research Program Mentor

MD/PhD candidate at Northwestern University


Vision science, machine learning, medicine


I’m currently an MD-PhD student at Northwestern University in Chicago, IL, where I study how different cells in the retina respond to light and how these responses affect the overall state of the retina and brain. Before starting at Northwestern, I studied Neuroscience at the University of Pittsburgh, where I used machine learning to study vision in the brains of neurosurgical patients. I am generally interested in how knowledge about the brain can be used to teach our computers to think, and about how advances in computer and software architecture can advance our understanding of the brain. I am also interested in translating discoveries in neuroscience and computer science to improve the clinical care of patients. Outside of research, I enjoy reading and playing soccer, guitar, and chess. I’ve also been known to spend a weekend working on a programming project or Geocaching with my wife.

Project ideas

Project ideas are meant to help inspire student thinking about their own project. Students are in the driver seat of their research and are free to use any or none of the ideas shared by their mentors.

Creating a computer model of the visual system

Have you ever wondered how the light in the world around you is translated into the experience of vision: color, motion, optical illusions, thoughts? In this project you will begin to answer this question by building a computer model that attempts to replicate the biology of vision from the moment a particle of light enters the eye to the moment the brain perceives a complex idea such as a facial expression. By completing this project you will: • Learn the basic biology of human vision, including the relevant anatomy of the eye and brain and the functions of important cells in the visual system, as well as more advanced biology of a visual phenomenon of your choosing • Take a multidisciplinary approach (using optics, cytoarchitecture, information theory, and more) to tackle a challenging biological question • Construct simple biophysical models and artificial neural networks which work together to form a broader model of vision • Understand the key differences between your model and the human visual system and what implications those differences have on your results • Be able to formulate a hypothesis about how an optical illusion or visual deficit might arise from a disturbance to “normal” vision

Creating an online resource for a disease of vision

By the year 2030, 150 million people around the world are expected to be affected by diabetic retinopathy, a vision-impairing condition caused by diabetes. Over 20% of 80-year-olds in the United States are affected by macular degeneration, a (usually) age-related disease that affects reading and the ability to accomplish activities of daily living. Myopia (or “near-sightedness”) affects over a quarter of the world’s population, including over 85% of teenagers in some Asian countries. Visual diseases such as these are among the most common and significant medical conditions that our society faces today. For this project you will: • Learn about important aspects of a visual disease that interests you: its etiology, pathophysiology, signs and symptoms, therapies, prevalence, psychosocial impact, and more • Summarize what you have learned in the form of a website that is targeted towards a specific population, such as children, patients, scientists, or voters • Present the same data in multiple ways and consider what effects your presentation choices have on your audience • Develop basic skills in and knowledge about web design, as well as a more advanced understanding of how to make websites and other media accessible to people with visual impairment

Coding skills

Python, Matlab, C/C++, Javascript, HTML, CSS, Dart

Teaching experience

As an undergraduate I served as a teaching assistant in introductory biology and in physiology. As an MD/PhD student I serve as a teaching assistant in neuroanatomy to medical students and graduate students. I have previously served as a volunteer adult English as a Second Language (ESL) tutor. I have mentored students through lab research, medical school, and graduate school admissions.



University of Pittsburgh
BS Bachelor of Science (2015)
Northwestern University
MD/PhD Doctor of Medicine and of Philosophy candidate
Medicine (MD), Neuroscience (PhD)


"Working with Zach this summer was a very fun and valuable experience. From the very start of our time together, Zach always supplied me with the materials I needed to succeed, and was very good at explaining concepts that I was having trouble. He was also very flexible with scheduling, which was very helpful for a busy high schooler with constantly changing plans."

Pranav from Mansfield, MA

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