So often in life, it’s the little things that define us. For Texas A&M University biologist Jennifer Dulin, it’s a small circular sign that graces the area above her Interdisciplinary Life Sciences Building laboratory desk. At first glance, its three-letter message in bold print is clear enough: “Ugh.” Upon closer inspection, however, one can’t help but notice two additional letters preceding the “Ugh” and superimposed at a slightly left-leaning angle in the subtlest of script fonts: “La.”
Clever. Defiant. Witty. Resourceful. Unmistakably optimistic.
Three years ago, Dulin got the full-circle chance to return to Texas A&M, where she earned her bachelor’s in biochemistry in 2005, to pursue her life’s work of making the best of one of the worst situations currently affecting the lives of more than 300,000 people in the United States alone — spinal cord injury (SCI). Related breakthroughs are on the horizon in Aggieland, thanks to Dulin and three other professors — including fellow biologist Dylan McCreedy — recruited to the campus as part of an SCI cluster hire made possible in partnership with The Institute for Rehabilitation and Research (TIRR) Foundation. Each researcher is doing pioneering work in an academic department and in specific SCI-related areas as members of the Texas A&M Spinal Cord Initiative, a cross-college collaboration involving Science, Medicine, Engineering, Liberal Arts and Veterinary Medicine along with the Texas A&M Institute for Neuroscience.
For her part, Dulin is using her knowledge of cellular and molecular biology to perfect experimental approaches to repairing and rebuilding the injured spinal cord. Her research focuses on stem cell transplantation therapy, including exploratory strategies that replace nerve cells, or neurons, lost either to injury or degenerative diseases with neural stem cells — immature cells capable of regrowing new tissue.
“When we transplant neural stem cells into the injured spinal cord, these cells proliferate and become new neurons that form brand new connections with other neurons above and below the injury,” Dulin said. “This establishes a sort of bridge with the ability to transmit messages between the brain and the body, potentially allowing recovery of lost neurological functions.”
Learn more about Texas A&M’s SCI cluster hire in the Chronicle of Higher Education’s latest article collection, 21st Century Research: Crossing the Disciplinary Lines, which also features an opening statement from Texas A&M President Michael K. Young, as well as Dulin’s own laboratory in our latest Labors of Lab video segment below:
A native of Houston, Dulin earned her Ph.D. in neuroscience at the University of Texas Health Science Center-Houston in 2012 and completed a five-year postdoctoral fellowship in the Department of Neurosciences at the University of California, San Diego prior to joining the Texas A&M Department of Biology as an assistant professor and TIRR Foundation Fellow in 2017.
“My long-term vision is that we will gain a solid understanding of which combinations of cells are most important for improving different aspects of neurological function, such as walking, hand movement, sensation or organ function, and develop customized cell transplants that can be tailored to individuals who experience a unique set of symptoms,” Dulin said. “However, this is still years away.
“As a scientist, you sometimes concentrate too much on your own work and lose sight of the big picture. As we think about potential therapies, we have an obligation to focus on developing treatments with the highest potential to improve quality of life for those living with SCI.”
We recently caught up with Dulin during filming for an episode of our Labors of Lab video series, and she agreed to share her first-person thoughts on all things Aggie to the Zen of research, from finding her footing in the lab to following her own advice when it comes to going big, which can sometimes lead to going home.
# # # # # # # # # #
Why did you choose Texas A&M, both as a prospective undergraduate back in 2000 and now as an assistant professor and TIRR Foundation Fellow?
“As an undergraduate student, I chose Texas A&M because of its strong reputation as a Tier 1 institution. Texas A&M graduates are leaders in the fields of engineering, science and technology. I loved the idea of earning my degree at a world-class institution with such a rich history of tradition. Fast forward to 16 years later, when I was entering the job market for faculty positions. I was extremely lucky that a cluster hire in the area of spinal cord injury research, supported by a generous gift from the TIRR Foundation, had just been announced at Texas A&M. I knew instantly that I wanted to be a part of this. I was one of four new faculty members hired in this cluster. Together with several other established investigators in the field, we have united to establish the Texas A&M Spinal Cord Initiative, a team of researchers from diverse backgrounds and expertise who are united in the common goal of developing new and effective treatments for spinal cord injury. I am simply thrilled to be a part of this movement — and especially so because I get to return home to Aggieland, where the culture of excellence is stronger than ever!”
What made you decide to pursue a science career and, more specifically, a future in spinal cord injury research?
“As a freshman biochemistry major, I joined the lab of Dr. Marty Scholtz in the Department of Medical Biochemistry & Genetics. After finding my footing in the lab, I quickly found that I was in love with research and I ended up staying in the lab until I graduated in 2005 (Whoop!) To me, there is nothing more exciting than going into the lab and conducting an experiment that no one else in the world has ever done before. That thrill never goes away — in fact, even though I rarely work at the lab bench anymore, I still have a deep love for discussing science with my students and coming up with exciting new questions in our research.
“When I began graduate school, I didn’t know exactly what I wanted to research; I only knew that I wanted to work in an area of neuroscience with a direct relevance to human health. I ended up joining the lab of my Ph.D. advisor, Dr. Ray Grill, whose research focused on characterizing the pathophysiology of spinal cord injury and developing new neuroprotective therapies. My four years of graduate research in the Grill lab cemented my commitment to the field. Spinal cord injury is a terrible event that devastates the lives of affected individuals and their loved ones, and there are zero effective treatments that can preserve or improve neurological function following injury. Additionally, we still don’t have a great understanding of how the miswiring of injured spinal circuits results in consequences such as paralysis, pain and autonomic dysfunction. Because of this, there is a huge need to gain a better understanding of what goes wrong after injury in order to develop more powerful therapeutic approaches. This urgent need is what drives my commitment to spinal cord injury research.”
What has been your most rewarding success or accomplishment, as well as your biggest hurdle thus far in your career?
“One of the most rewarding aspects of my career has been watching my lab grow and evolve. In two short years, I have gone from unpacking boxes of equipment to watching my trainees win prizes for their scientific presentations at international meetings. It’s an enormous honor to serve as a mentor to the next generation of scientists and watch them become increasingly independent. I am especially proud to be able to mentor my strong female Ph.D. students (Prakruthi Amar, Valerie Dietz and Ashley Tucker) and postdoctoral fellow (Miriam Aceves) as they navigate the maze of academia. Keep an eye out for these ladies in the coming years! They will be in the headlines for their groundbreaking scientific advances.
“Of course, there are many hurdles and obstacles in the path to a successful research career. One of the challenges that a scientist has to face over and over throughout her career is to successfully obtain research funding. The competition for obtaining research grants is intense. For that reason, I spend a large amount of my time writing and submitting grants. One of the major hurdles in obtaining funding is convincing peer reviewers that your research is important and worth supporting. Like many new investigators, I am still learning how to write highly effective proposals. Rejection is a huge part of this process. As a scientist, I face rejection over and over, and I have learned not to let that rejection get to me. Rather, I aim to use constructive criticism in a positive way in order to improve my research ideas and increase the impact of my work. It helps to have a thick skin to make it in research, just like in any highly competitive profession.”
What are some of the biggest advances you see on the spinal cord injury horizon, both in general and in your own focus area?
“I feel extraordinarily lucky to be doing research in this field right now, because I feel that we are on the cusp of multiple breakthroughs. My own area of research is neural stem cell transplantation. In my lab, we are working to explore the basic biology guiding how transplanted cells interact with the injured adult nervous system to create brand new neural circuits that can facilitate recovery of function. Scientists have recently developed very clever tools to examine how specific types of neurons contribute to diverse neurological functions, and we are working to apply these tools to studies of transplanted cells. For example, we are using transsynaptic tracing technology in order to visualize how neurons in transplants are synaptically connected to other cells in the nervous system. In addition, we are using new tools that allow us to interrogate these neurons’ functions. For example, we can selectively switch the activity of transplanted neurons on or off. This allows us to probe the functional contributions of these cells to complex behaviors, such as reaching out and grasping an object. By taking advantage of cutting-edge technology, we are beginning to gain insight into the potential of transplanted neurons to reverse neurological dysfunctions following injury. I believe that studies such as these will lead to major advances in our understanding of the potential of transplanted cells to “rewire” the injured nervous system, and information gained from this work will guide the development of clinically-effective cell sources to be tested in human patients.
“Another exciting area of spinal cord injury research is neuromodulation. This is the use of engineered devices to deliver electrical stimulation to the nervous system in order to elicit movement in paralyzed people. Some research groups have designed brain-computer interfaces that can ‘read’ signals from the brain and transmit them to the spinal cord, bypassing the site of injury, so that volitional hand or leg movement can occur even in the absence of direct input from the brain to the lower motor neurons. One of the most remarkable achievements I have seen has been recently reported by the lab of Dr. Grégoire Courtine. By providing patterned electrical stimulation to the lower spinal cord of individuals who have been completely paralyzed for years, researchers were able to elicit locomotion (walking). Remarkably, the nervous system ‘learned’ from this stimulation training. After several training sessions, these individuals regained voluntary control of muscle movement. I believe this type of engineering approach has incredible potential to restore lost neurological function to a degree that was previously thought impossible.”
What motivates you as a researcher, an educator and a person?
“As a researcher, my number one motivation is to ask ‘big questions.’ This was the philosophy of one of my scientific heroes, Dr. Ben Barres, who left behind a tremendous legacy in the field of neuroscience. My driving goal is to identify the fundamental gaps in knowledge in my field and drive the research forward into new and exciting areas. I’m motivated by how much we don’t know.
“As an educator, I am motivated by students who get excited about learning. Whether it is in the classroom or in the lab, nothing is more rewarding than seeing a student light up with interest about a topic, tie together concepts, or draw new conclusions. My goals are to inspire my students with a passion to seek new knowledge and to challenge longstanding assumptions as science evolves and new information becomes available.
“As a person, I am driven by a desire to make a positive impact in the world. I am a strong advocate for equality for women, minorities and LGBTQ individuals, who are frequently victims of bias in academia. As a woman, I have been treated differently than my male colleagues on numerous occasions, and this sort of inequality needs to be eradicated. I believe that by educating the next generation of scientists, we can change the culture of academia to one that embraces diversity rather than fears it.”
What is one thing people would be surprised to know about you?
“I’m a huge dog lover! My partner and I recently adopted two retired research dogs, Shadow and Rogue, and they are just the best dogs ever. Since they grew up in a research colony, they have so much love for people because of the incredible care and loving attention they received from veterinarians all their lives. But it has been a big adjustment for them to acclimate to life in the real world. At first, they were bewildered by things like ceiling fans, cars and mirrors. In fact, they still can’t get used to the fact that there isn’t another dog ready to play with them in the mirror! They’re just the sweetest, most loving babies ever. There are still plenty of retired research dogs available for adoption through the amazing program, Homes for Animal Heroes.”
How surreal is it to be on faculty at the same university where you once were an undergraduate?
It’s definitely surreal! When I first returned to Texas A&M in 2017, I was blown away by the changes on campus, including the new and improved Kyle Field, the renovations to the MSC and all of the new buildings, such as the ILSB, where my lab is located. It is also especially strange to be a faculty member in the Department of Biology, because some of my former professors are now my colleagues. It’s been very exciting to see all of the positive changes that have taken place since I was a student here.”
What are some of your favorite memories of your time as a student at Texas A&M?
I had such a blast in college! Some of my favorite memories are meeting new people through class and student organizations and forming lifelong friendships with them. One of my best friends, Jason Ford, and I used to pull all-nighters studying for Organic Chemistry and Genetics at Sweet Eugene’s (those were intense!) and it brought back so many memories to go back there as a faculty member. Another wonderful memory was having dinner at the house of former Texas A&M University President Robert Gates to celebrate one of my friends, Nick Anthis, being awarded the Rhodes Scholarship. One of my greatest achievements as an undergraduate was completing my Undergraduate Honors Research Thesis as the product of years of hard work (and failed experiments!) That definitely gave me a strong feeling of achievement and cemented my dedication to a career in research.”
How has Texas A&M and its students — if not also the overall educational/collegiate experience — changed since your days as an undergrad?
“I have seen some incredibly positive changes in the student body here at Texas A&M since I graduated. I know that the competitiveness required for gaining acceptance to graduate and professional programs has increased tremendously in the past 15 years. Perhaps as a result, the level of engagement and dedication of students in the classroom seems to have grown exponentially. As a professor, the discussions I have with my students consistently blow me away because of their level of understanding and excitement about science. In my lab, I am mentoring several undergraduates who are steering their own projects. Their curiosity and motivation is unmatched by any students I have worked with at other universities. I’m simply blown away by how amazing they are, and I’m immensely grateful to be able to work with each of them.”
What advice would you give today’s students?
“My advice to all students is to never give up. Academia is tough, and as you progress through your bachelor’s degree and beyond, you will inevitably be faced with failure. Don’t let it get you down! Getting a bad grade on an exam or being rejected for an award doesn’t mean that you’re not good enough; it’s simply a part of life. Don’t dwell on these failures. Pick yourself up, dust yourself off and try again. Always keep improving yourself and pushing yourself to achieve goals outside of your comfort zone. Stay motivated and remember that you have the ability to effect great change in the world!”