This month’s Faculty Spotlight highlights Dr. Jennifer Dulin ’05. A former Aggie (Biochemistry) and current Assistant Professor in the Department of Biology, Dr. Dulin studies the pathophysiology of spinal cord injuries and potential new therapies to improve the quality of life in people with these types of injuries.
Jennifer Dulin received her B.S. in. Biochemistry from Texas A&M University in 2005. She then entered the field of Neuroscience and joined the lab of Dr. Raymond Grill at the University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston for her Ph.D. studies. While in the Grill lab, she developed a strong interest in spinal cord injury (SCI) research, publishing three papers in the field of SCI. After graduating in 2012, Jennifer began her postdoctoral studies in the lab of Dr. Mark Tuszynski at the University of California, San Diego. Her work in the Tuszynski lab focused on gene therapy and neural stem cell transplantation approaches for SCI, and led to the finding that the injured adult nervous system innervates neural stem cell graft tissue in a topographically and functionally appropriate manner.
In October 2017, Jennifer joined the TAMU Department of Biology as an Assistant Professor. Her research focuses on characterizing the biological mechanisms by which neural stem cells can form new connections with the injured nervous system, toward the ultimate goal of developing optimized cell transplants for SCI. The overall goal of the Dulin lab is to combine a high level of scientific rigor with transparency and open collaboration, in order to drive the field forward toward the development of powerful clinical therapies.
Tell us about your research and what led you to your field.
My research focuses on understanding the pathophysiology of spinal cord injury (SCI), and identifying ways to rebuild injured neural circuits. After injury, the central nervous system cannot heal and regenerate like many of the other organs in the body can. As a result, most people with SCI face a lifetime of neurological deficits. Many people don’t realize that SCI doesn’t just cause paralysis—people with injuries often suffer from chronic pain, spasticity, autonomic dysfunction that can be life-threatening, chronic problems with liver, kidney, and bladder function, dysregulation of the immune system, infertility. The specific deficits can be different for everyone. One of my friends with SCI constantly feels an itching sensation in an unreachable spot between his shoulder blades. Unfortunately, there are zero clinically-approved treatments that can effectively treat any of these. So, we need to get a better grasp on exactly how injury to the spinal cord causes specific functional deficits in order to develop effective treatments.
After getting my B.S. in Biochemistry, I decided to do my Ph.D. in Neuroscience. I came into grad school knowing that I’d generally like to work on something relevant to human disease, but completely unfamiliar with spinal cord injury. After I joined the lab of my Ph.D. advisor, Dr. Ray Grill, I started to realize that this was a great field that I wanted to commit to for the long haul. There is so much we fundamentally don’t understand about how injury to the central nervous system can impart so many different functional deficits, and unfortunately we still can’t effectively treat any of them. So, there is an immense need to really characterize the injured system and to engineer better therapeutic strategies that can improve people’s quality of life. There is a huge amount of work to be done, and that is very appealing to me because I like a challenge. I am really looking forward to seeing what the next few decades of research in my field will achieve.
When did you realize that you wanted a career in academia? Was there any one person that inspired you to go in this direction?
I made good grades, enjoyed science classes, and wanted to do something to help reduce human suffering—so naturally I entered college hoping to go to med school. I had never considered a career in academic research, simply because I wasn’t exposed to it in high school. One of the requirements of majoring in Biochemistry at A&M was to do a semester of lab research, so as a freshman I joined the lab of Dr. Marty Scholtz. I worked under a grad student in the lab on a project studying the thermodynamics of protein folding. Even though the Biochem program’s requirement was one semester, I liked laboratory research so much that I ended up staying in the Scholtz lab until I graduated. I don’t think I contributed much to the progress of research in that lab—in fact I probably set the grad student back by screwing up protein purifications and cloning for his project. But I realized that I loved certain aspects of academic research, like the freedom to decide the direction to take your research in, and the huge role of creativity in being a successful scientist. I decided there and then that I was much more drawn to a career in academia/research as opposed to a future in medicine.
What advice would you have for students to be successful in graduate school?
For a beginning graduate student who is still doing rotations: I emphatically believe that choosing a great mentor is one of the most important things you can do to ensure your success in graduate school and in your future career. And I don’t mean this in the sense that you should only join the lab of a PI who is consistently pumping out Nature or Cell papers. Rather, you should pick a mentor who will truly invest in your career development—who will teach you how to write grants, encourage you to go out for awards and present at meetings, introduce you to colleagues and collaborators in the field, and help you to line up a good postdoc/job after graduation. How do you figure out if a PI has these qualities? Ask! Talk to the PI and the current students & postdocs in the lab! Get a feeling for how happy and supported other folks in the lab are, and trust your gut. I highly recommend that new students read the article “How to Pick a Graduate Advisor” by my hero, Ben Barres (Neuron 80: 275-279).
On a related note, as an incoming student you may have a very specific idea of what you want to work on in your PhD, but try to keep an open mind. For example, maybe you worked as an undergraduate on a project to study the role of hormone signaling on social behaviors in the naked mole rat. You may think that the only thing you could possibly be interested in studying in graduate school is the molecular control of social behavior. And if you rotate through a lab focusing on that, and you love the environment and have an exciting project, that’s great! However, try to set up at least one rotation doing something outside of your comfort zone that you find interesting. You may end up falling in love with another research area – the enthusiasm of a good mentor for his/her work can be highly contagious, and diversifying your expertise and technical skillset is always a good thing.
General advice for all grad students:
- If you are considering a career in academia, apply for funding now. Even if your mentor tells you that you don’t need to because they’ve got money for you, do it anyway. Apply for big NIH fellowships and small travel grants alike. Figure out what unique funding opportunities may be available to graduate students in your specific field. Ask your PI for copies of their past grants to help you learn about the different components that go into one. Writing successful grants is an indispensable part of a being a successful academic scientist, and it’s a skill you should sharpen constantly.
- If you’re having writer’s block or are overwhelmed with a writing assignment and don’t know where to begin—start with something easy like the Methods section. I usually jump in there to get into the “writing” mindset, and the little dopamine surge that comes when you finish a paragraph is a great motivator for tackling the more intensive parts of the paper.
- Don’t take criticism about your work personally. This is important. It may be hard at times, especially when you have poured countless hours into a project and may be sleep-deprived or overworked. If a committee member points out an important control that you overlooked, this doesn’t make you a bad scientist. Your ability to graciously receive constructive criticism and use it to refine your work will take you very far.
- The quality of your work, and not the title of the journal it gets published in, will ultimately determine its impact. Don’t become obsessed with getting your work into glamour journals. Don’t buy into the false mindset that a study is only worth reading (or publishing) if it’s in Nature. Focus on doing meaningful and reproducible research that will have a big impact in your field.
Describe strategies that you plan to use to create an inclusive research environment for your students.
I love teaching and mentoring students, and I am really looking forward to having great students in my lab! I work under the philosophy that you get out of research what you put into it, and this applies to students who are new to research as much as it applies to experienced research scientists. An enthusiastic and dedicated undergraduate in my lab will have the opportunity to learn a variety of skills and techniques and figure out what aspect of research they like the most; they will be able to shape the direction of their project and fully participate in the scientific process. I want to give undergrads the opportunity to be immersed in research and included as valuable members of the team, with their contributions earning them authorships on papers.
What graduate and/or undergraduate courses would you like to develop in the future?
I love neuroscience and would love to develop and teach more diverse neuro classes in the future. I would specifically like to teach a Neurobiology of Disease course, where students can learn about the pathophysiologies that underlie different neurological disorders.
What are the most challenging and the most rewarding parts of being a new professor?
Most challenging: Setting up a new lab is a pretty huge task that involves figuring out what kind of renovations your lab space might need, ordering everything from pipette tips to freezers, hiring and training lab personnel, getting all of the regulatory paperwork submitted, and a billion other things your postdoctoral training never prepared you for. It’s a fun challenge, though!
Most rewarding: I finally have my dream job! Being a tenure-track faculty member is a goal I have worked toward for a long time, and I can’t wipe the smile off my face!
What is one thing people would be surprised to know about you?
My worst fear is tornadoes—I break out into cold sweats at the thought of them. So, moving back to Texas from California was a bit of a psychological hurdle in that regard.
You graduated from Texas A&M with a bachelor’s degree before going on to graduate school. How has A&M changed since you were here as a student?
Since I graduated in ’05, the most apparent changes to me are all the new buildings (especially the renovated Kyle Field and the MSC!). Also, in 2005 there were 45,000 total students and today there are 62,000—that’s almost 40% more students. Other than that, I’m happy to see that Texas A&M traditions are still very much alive and well, even the practice of saying “Howdy” when you pass someone on campus is still a thing, which is great!