By CHARLES ANZALONE
Published February 3, 2023
Paul Cullen, professor and director of graduate studies in the Department of Biological Sciences, is the recipient of the 2021-22 Distinguished Postdoctoral Mentor Award, which recognizes UB faculty members who excel in the mentoring of postdoctoral scholars.
The annual award, established in 2009, is presented by the Graduate School’s Office of Postdoctoral Scholars. It supports faculty members who not only teach their mentees, but also serve as an advocate, adviser and positive role model.
“The Office of Postdoctoral Scholars was thrilled at this year’s nomination pool,” says Kristen Ashare, director of the Office of Postdoctoral Scholars. “We are continuing to develop opportunities for highlighting mentorship and positive mentor-mentee relationship development here on campus.
“This annual award honors important work that otherwise goes unseen,” Ashare says. “I’m so grateful to Dr. Cullen and his dedication to mentorship that is recognized with this award.”
Cullen’s research investigates how cells sense changes in the environment and make decisions. He received his PhD from Washington University in St. Louis, where he studied nitrogen sensing and signaling in bacteria under Robert Kranz, professor of biology. Cullen was a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Oregon with George Sprague, now professor emeritus of biology, where he explored glucose signaling in the regulation of filamentous growth in yeast, primarily by mucin sensors and Mitogen-Activated Protein Kinase (MAPK) pathways. His interest in microbial signal transduction has continued as a faculty member in the UB Department of Biological Sciences for the past 18 years.
“All cells sense and respond to extracellular signals,” Cullen explains. “Sensing and relaying changes in the extracellular milieu is mediated by signal transduction pathways. One type of evolutionary conserved signaling pathway are Mitogen-Activated Protein Kinase (MAPK) pathways that can be controlled by G-proteins like the ubiquitous Cdc42. Cdc42-driven MAPK pathways are found in many eukaryotes and function in diverse ways to regulate cell differentiation, cell cycle progression and the response to stress,” he says. “We found a mucin-type protein that regulates MAPK pathways and are interested in learning about what these sticky molecules are sensing and how they trigger changes in cell shape.
“An interesting feature of MAPK pathways is that they can share components with other pathways in the cell,” Cullen notes. “How pathways that function in integrated networks induce the ‘right’ response is not well understood. Furthermore, inappropriate regulation of MAPK pathways can lead to cross talk, which is an underlying cause of diseases including cancers, immune diseases, inflammation and neurodegenerative disorders.”
Cullen’s nomination for the Distinguished Postdoc Mentor Award included a letter of endorsement from Beatriz Gonzalez, postdoctoral fellow in the Department of Biological Sciences.
“Dr. Cullen singlehandedly shaped my academic trajectory and is the main reason why I decided to stay in academia,” Gonzalez wrote in her nomination letter.
“During my experience as a graduate student, I had other advisers who did not drive my attention to an academic career. I was considering non-academic career choices until I met Dr. Cullen during an international collaboration, and I had the opportunity to spend 4 months in his laboratory.”
Gonzalez called her experience with Cullen “really fruitful in terms of research, writing and thinking.” As supervisor, Cullen “completely changed my vision about research and science,” she said.
“Dr. Cullen is a positive role model who has reinvigorated my love of science,” she wrote. “He really respects and understands my goals and makes a real effort to help me to achieve my aspirations. He also drives passion toward his research and transmits this passion to me.
“Dr. Cullen puts my career goals as a priority. It is not uncommon to hear from my postdoctoral colleagues that they are just cogs on a greater machine, their primary goal being achieving the PI’s goals,” Gonzalez wrote. “Rather, I feel that I am working on my future in Dr. Cullen’s laboratory and exploring exciting research together with my colleagues.
“In addition, as a woman, we are uniquely vulnerable and face more obstacles that other people in our same situation. I was so lucky to have one mentor like Dr. Cullen, who helps and supports me to keep fighting and pursue my dreams and goals against the odds.”
Gonzalez’s letter “impressed” the selection committee, Ashare said.
“It truly takes a mentor going above and beyond to close these leaks in the talent pipeline and we are so glad that Dr. Beatriz Gonzalez shared her story,” she said.