UAlbany Professors Join SUNY’s Distinguished Academy

Side-by-side portraits of two men with short gray hair wearing suit jackets. One stands in front of full bookshelves and the other stands, arms folded, in a laboratory.
Zai Liang of the Departments of Sociology and East Asian Studies (left) and Thomas Begley of the RNA Institute and Department of Biological Sciences (right) have been promoted to SUNY’s Distinguished Academy. (Photos by Patrick Dodson)

ALBANY, N.Y. (May 18, 2023) — Two University at Albany professors — Thomas Begley of the RNA Institute and Department of Biological Sciences, and Zai Liang of the Departments of Sociology and East Asian Studies — have been promoted to SUNY’s Distinguished Academy, the highest academic rank within the SUNY system, conferred by the State University Board of Trustees. Both have achieved the designation of Distinguished Professor, which recognizes faculty members who have made significant contributions to the research literature of their fields and attained national or international prominence for their expertise.  

“Members of our Distinguished faculty include Nobel laureates, National Academy inductees and National Medal of Technology and Innovation winners,” said Provost and Senior Vice President for Academic Affairs Carol Kim. “We celebrate Drs. Begley and Liang for joining this elite circle. Their respective work in DNA research and immigration and migration has a global reach, and equally impressive, I think, is the warm and engaged way they mentor their students.” 

“Professors Begley and Liang exemplify the mission of the College of Arts and Sciences to advance research and creative endeavors, to support and promote exceptional teaching and mentoring, and to contribute in positive ways to the University at large,” said Jeanette Altarriba, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences. “Their work in these areas is outstanding and far-reaching. We are pleased that the State University of New York has selected them for this singular award recognizing their contributions to our campus and most importantly, to the development and success of our students, at every level. We know that they will continue to make a positive difference within the College and to lead by example in important ways, for years to come.” 

Thomas Begley, RNA Institute and Department of Biological Sciences

Thomas Begley joined the University at Albany as an assistant professor in 2004, rising to the position of professor of biological sciences and associate director of the RNA Institute in 2018. Begley has directed the Institute’s Training Program in RNA Science and Technology since 2019.  

Thomas Begley in the RNA Institute lab
Thomas Begley in his lab in the RNA Institute. (Photo by Patrick Dodson)

Begley, who completed his PhD at UAlbany, studies how organisms respond to various types of “stress” at the cellular level. An underlying cause of many human diseases, stress can be caused by chemicals in the environment or medical treatments like chemotherapy. Understanding how stress affects cells can inform new treatments against disease.  

“Stress-based responses can alter RNA molecules, causing disruptions within the cell that stop it from operating as it should,” Begley said. “We study how stress modifies RNA, focusing on chemical marks associated with diseases, including certain cancers. Investigating these marks can help us better understand disease progression and identify new therapeutic targets to improve treatments.” 

Begley’s team was able to demonstrate that chemical marks on RNA can be re-programmed to help cells survive stress. They have also developed computational methods to analyze the over 100,000 RNAs in cells, in order to identify targets for re-programming. The method has applications in studying cancer biology and advancing treatments. 


Research at UAlbany: Stressing RNA May Help Fight Disease


“Doing this research in a university setting has allowed us to explore and identify new biology that is relevant for human disease and can be exploited for therapeutics and biomanufacturing,” Begley said. “I've benefited from working with outstanding students and colleagues throughout the course of my career here. I've always had great students that have allowed us to ask new questions and generate new answers to explore science and identify some things that can be used to improve human health and benefit society.”

Other signature research advances from Begley’s lab include the identification of a new tumor suppressor gene in colorectal cancer, and the development of mouse models that can be used to detect environmental toxicants that harm cells. 

“My favorite part of research is solving puzzles. I like to take complex data and find patterns in it. That's really fulfilling for me, and I try and have my students enjoy that experience. I also like to tell my students that they're the new world explorers. They are identifying things that no one has ever seen before and they're going to be the first in the world to do it.” 

Zai Liang, Departments of Sociology and East Asian Studies

Zai Liang arrived to the U.S. from China in 1986 as a graduate student at the University of Chicago. The transition to a new country would help inform his research in decades to come, he said. 

“In the winter of 1986, to my surprise, The New York Times reported that some 10 people died because Chicago had this big winter storm,” he recalled. “So as a new graduate student coming from China, that was such a big surprise. I said, how can the richest country in the world have people frozen to death the next morning? So that got me thinking about inequality and race issues.” 

Liang got his PhD in sociology from Chicago and worked as a postdoctoral fellow at Brown University before moving to New York City to teach at Queens College. In 2002, he arrived at UAlbany to teach sociology, and today is a professor in the Sociology and East Asian Studies Departments.

Liang studies migration and the population distribution of immigrants in the United States and across the globe. He recently published a book titled, From Chinatown to Every Town, exploring the spatial diffusion of Chinese immigrants in the United States. 

A man with short gray hair and glasses in a suit jacket and tie laughs as he sits with two students at a table.
UAlbany Sociology Professor Zai Liang with two of his graduate students, Fanling Cheng (left) and Hohyun Kim (right), earlier this month. (Photo by Patrick Dodson)

“Traditionally when we think about immigrants in the U.S. we tend to kind of concentrate in some major places — big cities like New York City, Chicago, San Francisco. But something took a turn around 2000 where we increasingly see immigrants actually move to different places, sometimes very far away from traditional gateway cities. And we're very interested in understanding what the driving force is behind this major change.” 

The trend is not just occurring among Asian immigrants, but also broadly among Latino/a immigrants, he said. Part of his research looks at how this trend impacts immigrants and communities alike, and how both can learn from each other.  

“The major challenge is that the moment people move away from the traditional destinations… they may not have the traditional church where the immigrant can speak their own language, they may be in a new destination where the local residents haven't seen a lot of immigrants, right? So there is potential interest in how do you get along with local people and how do local people get along with newcomers?” 


Research at UAlbany: Exploring China's Migration Story


He also studies the role that second-generation immigrants have played on race relations in these communities, such as immigrant children in Philadelphia who have helped their parents communicate with the local Black community. 

“That was pretty moving to me because the children did not have a preconceived concept of race… So when you take that approach, they built a lot of friendship between the local Chinese and Black customers. To me, that's very touching.” 

For his upcoming research, he hopes to continue exploring race relations in Philadelphia in the context of COVID-19, as well as anti-Asian hate against low-skilled workers in Chinatown that grew during the pandemic.  

Liang stressed that mentorship has played an important role throughout his life, from his own time as a graduate student in Chicago to his time now as a professor at UAlbany. He still has a copy of dissertation notes from his mentor at Chicago, Professor Douglas Massey (now at Princeton), on his bookshelf, which he gifted to him on his 70th birthday.  

With his own students, he sets the bar high with regular deadlines to keep them on track getting papers published, applying for grants, attending professional conferences and more. His students, in turn, assist his research and help spur new ways of thinking, he said. 

“As a professor, my job is to teach my students," he said. "But in that process, I also find that the students always have a lot of new ideas. So that further stimulates my new ideas and new thinking.”