Published January 31, 2017
Anthony J. Jones, a doctoral student in the neuroscience program, has received a two-year fellowship award in pharmacology/toxicology from the PhRMA Foundation.
His research focuses on screening for environmental compounds such as chemicals found in pesticides that can disrupt circadian rhythms, creating a higher risk for diabetes, obesity and other metabolic disorders.
The $20,000 yearly stipend supports career development activities of scientists, and its intent is to encourage multidisciplinary training to apply the perspective of molecular, cell and systems biology to pharmacology and toxicology research.
His mentors, Margarita L. Dubocovich, PhD, SUNY Distinguished Professor of pharmacology and toxicology and senior associate dean for diversity and inclusion, and Rajendram Rajnarayanan, PhD, assistant professor of pharmacology and toxicology, were principal investigators on a two-year grant awarded in 2014 from the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences to study how chemicals in the environment may raise the risk of prevalent metabolic conditions.
The research brought together big data on millions of chemicals to find which ones are circadian disruptors and may be causing diabetes.
“The goal of my fellowship is a little more specific because we now have more data on the project from the ensuing two years,” Jones says. “My mentors published a paper on how pesticides bind to melatonin receptors, but we are still looking for more chemicals.”
Jones says his research project is to look for compounds that selectively bind to either MT1 or MT2 melatonin receptors.
Dubocovich and Rajnarayanan often collaborate on research, writing grants together, both as principal investigators (PIs).
“When you are the PI, it means you are responsible for the whole grant and need to do everything proposed,” Dubocovich explains. “Multiple PIs allow two people, who contribute very different research expertise, to work together to accomplish the goals which cannot be done by only one PI.”
The multidisciplinary team they have created has expertise in the neurobiology of melatonin as well as integrated computational modeling of chemicals that bind to melatonin receptors.
“We merged our expertise to establish a comprehensive pharmacoinformatics pipeline — which we call Chem2Risk — to leverage big data on toxic chemical exposure,” Rajnarayanan adds.
Jones credits his participation in UB’s Collaborative Learning and Integrated Mentoring in the Biosciences – High Impact (CLIMB-HI) mentoring and professional development program for providing the groundwork for his success.
The CLIMB-HI program, with funding from the Initiative for Maximizing Student Development (IMSD), offers two years of financial support, weekly workshops and networking opportunities.
“I learned a lot about how to choose a mentor, how to write my curriculum vitae and how to write papers and grants,” Jones says. “You learn a lot of different things that scientists need to be successful in their careers.”
Dubocovich says the professional development program is very important for student success as it is designed to avoid the “sink or swim” philosophy.
“We want our students to be successful from day one,” she says. “We put them into a good work and social environment with peers who have the same goals. It makes for more well-rounded scientists.”
“We like our programs to be catalysts, to give our students the tools to be leaders in the field, and that is something we expect of Anthony one day,” Rajnarayanan adds.
Dubocovich says the PhRMA Foundation fellowship that Jones was awarded is remarkable in the sense that it is a beginning that can grow into something much greater.
“When you win one of these awards, you become part of the PhRMA Foundation community,” she says, noting that 29 years after winning a PhRMA Foundation research starter grant for new assistant professors, she was named the recipient of the prestigious 2012 PhRMA Foundation Award in Excellence in Pharmacology/Toxicology.
In receiving that honor, Dubocovich joined an elite group of previous awardees including international leaders in pharmacology and toxicology, some of whom have gone on to win the Nobel Prize in Science.
For his long-range goals, Jones lists using his own laboratory to conduct research on the effect of environmental modulators in neurodegenerative diseases.
He also aspires to study the molecular and toxicological properties of target proteins implicated in hereditary spastic paraplegia (HSP) with the hope of designing treatments to combat the disease, which afflicts his brother.
Jones notes that his current research is allowing him to sharpen his knowledge of receptor pharmacology, learn and apply toxicological concepts and receive training in basic neuroscience.
It all leads to the pursuit of his long-term goal of applying a multidisciplinary approach to further understand the basic neuropharmacological, neurotoxicological and genetic mechanisms in HSP.
“Although I understand my future research will most likely not have a direct impact on my brother, studying HSP is my dream,” Jones says.