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Department of Pharmacology and Physiology Meet Joshua Jackson, PhD

Joshua Jackson, PhD: Pharmacology & Physiology

Prior to joining the Department of Pharmacology and Physiology, Dr. Jackson held the position of scientist at The Children's Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP) in the lab of Dr. Michael Robinson. Dr. Jackson was involved in studying the regulation of glutamate transporters, with a main focus on calcium-dependent processes and mitochondria.

How long have you been at Drexel?

Just under two years now.

What drew you to the position here?

I have a background in pharmacology to begin with, and the department had a real strength in neuropharmacology in particular and has a good reputation within the city of having a diverse group of researchers.

Where were you prior to joining Drexel?

I did my graduate work at University of Minnesota, came out and did two postdocs, one at the University of Pennsylvania and the other at CHOP.

Can you tell me about the research that you're doing?

Right now, we have two main focuses in the lab, and both are generally centered around this class of cell called astrocytes, which are a support cell in the brain. These cells interact with the neurons and the vasculature and control the flow of nutrients, and to some degree blood flow, from the vasculature into the neurons. They we can also modulate neuronal function. So we're interested broadly in how astrocytes may signal back and forth between neurons in the vasculature to control brain activity.

A second project in the lab has come about since I came here, and that's a collaboration with the Hartsough Lab where we're trying to look at the interaction of these astrocytes with metastatic melanoma in the brain and how these interactions may facilitate melanoma metastasis.

What kind of techniques are you using for those projects?

In the first project, a lot of our techniques revolve around the use of animals and animal tissue, and more recently, some human-derived tissue. Most of the lab revolves around the use of microscopy. We use high-end microscopes to look at cellular signaling both in the astrocytes and in the surrounding cells. The model that we use most is a slice system or a slice culture system. These are relatively thick sections of animal brain tissue that are labeled with a genetic or fluorescent indicators that allow us to probe activity within the cells.

We actually use similar techniques in the collaborative study with the Hartsough Lab. The difference there is that we take the slices or the slice cultures that we have that we would typically use and we introduced tumors to them. I'll also mention that the other major technique that we use is in vivo imaging, which we use primarily to look at blood flow regulation within a live a specimen.

How did you become interested in researching vascular neurology?

One of the things that I began to work on when I originally came out to Philadelphia was a project to use a new technology --- photon imaging to look at brain activity in awake-behaving rodents. The project that developed out of that was to look at the activity of astrocytes in relationship to blood flow in neuronal activity. So this is a project that has continued with me for a number of years now.

In terms of your collaboration with the Hartsough Lab, can you tell me what made you want to get involved with that and where the project came from?

Dr. Hartsough and I started on the same day, and our offices are two doors down from each other. The idea to collaborate on this research came as a series of conversations that we had as we were getting to know each other.

It turns out that melanoma metastasized to the brain with very high frequency, much more so than many other cancers, and they have a defined set of neurologic consequences --- particularly seizures. Because of that, we have a suspicion or a hypothesis that the interactions of melanoma with astrocytes or other cells in the brain mediate these adverse events.

What is it like having a student assisting you in your lab?

I had students as a postdoc at Penn and CHOP, so this student isn't the first I've been responsible for training, although this is the first time that I've had the sole responsibility for all decisions. I do enjoy having students. I think that's actually probably one of the most enjoyable aspects of the job. Being able to talk with somebody in-depth about projects to work on while developing their scientific training and how they go about asking questions is generally pretty enjoyable.

Do you have anyone in particular who comes to mind when you're thinking of people who've helped shape your own scientific training?

I had an advantage. I've actually been in a number of labs now. I worked as a technician out of college, I had my graduate mentor, and then I completed two postdocs. Because of that, I've gotten to see a wide range of styles of how to mentor people and how to run a lab. I think my favorite is probably my graduate advisor who was extraordinarily patient with students. He's very smart, but also very humble, and really invested in the training of students.

What was it that helped you realize you wanted to work in academia?

Once I went back to graduate school, I think a lot of that certainty came from conversations with my mentor. I did my PhD in pharmacology, so the major routes that were open were – certainly some people went into academics, although relatively few compared to the amount of people that I know that went into industrial positions. That makes sense from a pharmacology standpoint; a lot of the training is really in understanding drug development and target validation, but I have a wide range of interests and wanted more freedom to explore those sorts of questions.

If you were talking to students who were interested in going into Pharm/Phys research, what would your advice for them be?

I think it's important to understand what you're getting into. One of the ways I was able to figure that out was to find a lab and work as a technician before going back to graduate school. That gave me a chance to understand whether this is something I really wanted to do, which was important because it requires a significant investment of time and effort to get a PhD.

What would you say are some of the differences between your experiences working for someone else and running your own lab?

As I mentioned, I've had the advantage of passing through a number of labs before I got here, so I've been able to pick and choose best practices from each one. I think the biggest difference between working in a lab and having a lab is the sheer number of decisions that have to have to be made. Ultimately, the buck stops here, so as we've been starting out, a lot more of our focus has been on leveraging experiments to get preliminary data for grant funding and trying to understand how to negotiate the pathways to get funding. That's probably one of the biggest differences. It's a fairly steep learning curve.

I'd say you're wearing a lot more hats than you were when you worked in somebody's lab. You have to be the fundraiser. You have to recruit personnel to work in the lab, both students and technicians. You have to learn how to negotiate collaborations. There are also teaching requirements. And all of those things are things that while you may have been aware of them peripherally before you ran a lab, the responsibility was never yours. That said, it is also very enjoyable to do. It's very rewarding to see the people that you've trained and the resource that you've built actually produce something meaningful.

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Elements of a laboratory experiment.