Biological Sciences welcomes new faculty members

Dr. Andy Chaudhuri

What motivated you to pursue a career in science?

My earliest childhood memories are of being fascinated with insects and the remarkable metamorphosis some of them undergo. The change of form from a caterpillar to a pupae and then to an adult moth or butterfly was something miraculous, and I always had a yearning to know why and how this happens. The desire to know how living organisms function, change and adapt was a motivating factor for my career in science.

 

Describe the path that led you to your current research/career area.

My curiosity on the metamorphosis process led me to pursue PhD studies at Bose Institute, Kolkata, India in insect endocrinology and, eventually, neurobiology. My first model system was the silkworm Bombyx mori. I also investigated the function of vertebrate thyroid hormones (T3 and T4) in insect physiology. My post-doctoral stint at The University of Alabama in Dr. Janis O’Donnell’s lab gave me my first chance to work with the powerful genetic model the fruit fly Drosophila melanogaster while I worked on developing a Parkinsonian model. I then moved on to the University Of Nebraska Medical Center and worked on mammalian model systems with emphasis on HIV associated dementia, reprogramming of pluripotent stem cells to treat neurodegenerative diseases, and on colon cancer and metastasis. Each of these areas added skill sets to my tool box which would better enable me to answer pressing and exciting research questions in the biomedical field. Eventually, I chose to utilize my research experiences to help undergraduates with research in the biomedical field so that they could also participate in cutting-edge research, particularly in areas of neurobiology and cancer.

 

What about your area of research excites you the most?

Seeing the excitement and thirst for knowledge in the students I mentor. It brings immense satisfaction when I see an undergrad student researcher take ownership of a particular project and come up with exciting results.

 

What are the most challenging aspects of your research/career?

One of the most challenging aspects of my research career was the move from insect neurobiology to mammalian model systems. Another was creating an animal model to study colon cancer and its metastasis. It was a steep and exciting learning curve but also very challenging.

 

What advice would you offer to undergraduate and graduate students?

I always emphasize that students (undergrad/grad) should have a goal in life and be passionate about achieving that goal. Whatever career path they choose, they need to put in 100% effort. There is no substitute for hard work, and in the end that is what will eventually see them through and give them satisfaction.

 

What do you like most about your job at UA?

Working with undergrads has been the most rewarding experience so far. Naïve questions asked by students unfettered by dogmas and prejudices sometimes open exciting lines of thought as well as better ways to explain how biology works. I also look forward to opportunities to engage undergraduate students in biomedical research and to provide them a platform to jump-start their career in biomedicine.

 

What are the biggest challenges?

Sometimes the challenge is to break down concepts into simple language and to conceptualize a problem and its solution in a manner that is easily comprehensible to the students. What I have learned through research may seem simple enough for me, but I need to make sure students have sufficient background to grasp the concept.

Dr. Kaleb Heinrich

Graduated from Kansas State University with a B.S. in Biology and a minor in music. He completed his M.S. in Zoology at Southern Illinois University and his doctorate in Biological Sciences at Idaho State University. His research interests include science education, freshwater ecology, and biology graduate student professional development.

 

What motivated you to pursue a career in science?

I have always loved science! My father, who is a veterinarian and herp enthusiast, played a big role. I grew up with a lot of tortoises and snakes. My entire family was always very supportive and encouraged me to pursue my interests in biology.

 

Describe the path that led you to your current research/career area.

Growing up, I wanted to be an astronaut. Then I thought I would be a vet like my dad. After working full time in his animal clinic, I decided that was not for me. During my senior year of undergrad I had an opportunity to TA for A&P. I really loved teaching! As my interests included all of biology, I think I could have gone down a number of different paths, but I had the opportunity to study aquatic insect emergence responses to in stream restoration and its effects on birds. The project was too cool to turn down! That led to another opportunity to examine invasive species interactions across the aquatic-terrestrial boundary while also pursuing my interests in biology education. Again, a project that I couldn’t possibly pass up!

 

What about your area of research (or career) excites you the most?

I love being outdoors and playing in water. I especially enjoy getting to interact with students—both undergrad and graduate. When I look at my life, I can think of two periods when I was most impressionable. One was when I was a young child, when my parents played a big role, and the other was when I was on my own for the first time as a freshman in undergrad. I was very fortunate to have great advisors and teachers who continued to inspire and grow my love of biology. I hope that I can be that person for others.

 

What are the most challenging aspects of your research/career?

Keeping my email inbox clean.

 

What advice would you offer to undergraduate and graduate students?

Think about what excites you the most or what you are most passionate about. Make whatever that is a priority. Ideally, you would find a job that incorporates whatever it is, but if not, find other ways to keep it in your life.

 

What do you like most about your job at UA?

I get to be a part of a fantastic, supportive department. The faculty and students have been incredibly helpful and supportive.

 

What are the biggest challenges?

Trying not to talk too much smack to my friends and colleagues during football season!

Dr. Nathan Correll

Nathan Correll earned his B.S. in Agricultural Biotechnology and his Ph.D. in Molecular and Cellular Biochemistry at the University of Kentucky, where he was supported by a predoctoral research fellowship from the American Heart Association. He subsequently pursued postdoctoral training at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital and was awarded an NIH National Research Service Award before becoming a Howard Hughes Medical Institute-supported research fellow in 2012. In 2018, Dr. Correll joined the Department of Biological Sciences at The University of Alabama, where his biomedical research lab studies the fundamental signaling processes that underlie pathological remodeling of the heart during disease.

 

What motivated you to pursue a career in science?

I was a self-motivated learner from an early age and read avidly. As a child my favorite subjects were biology and history. After a time I began to understand that if I really wanted to do serious learning, I would have to discover new things for myself. This was really the genesis of my idea to be a scientist. Although my parents were hard workers and always encouraged my interests, they had no scientific training, and so my professional role models were the scientists that populated the pages of classic science fiction novels. Then, when I was in sixth grade, I read Jurassic Park and decided that I would be a biologist. In college I worked in the population genetics lab of the entomologist Dr. Charles Fox at the University of Kentucky. Dr. Fox was a great mentor, and it was there that I first learned how to ask and answer scientific questions, but I ultimately decided to pursue biomedical research in the hopes that my work would someday help develop new treatments for human diseases.

 

Describe the path that led you to your current research/career area.

As a graduate student I was excited about biomedical research but had difficulty deciding what I wanted to study. One of the reasons I stayed at Kentucky was because I didn’t have to decide right away—they had an integrated program that allowed me to do rotations for the first year. I ultimately decided to pick a challenging environment where I would receive excellent mentorship. That was Doug Andres’s lab in the Department of Molecular and Cellular Biochemistry. My project there was to understand how a class of small, Ras-related GTPases, called RGK proteins, regulates voltage-gated Ca2+ channel function. That work had obvious implications for cardiac research that I decided to build on by entering the HHMI-funded research lab of Jeffrey Molkentin at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital for my postdoc work. There I gained valuable experience in working with genetically-altered mouse models and surgical models of heart disease. I also extended my studies related to the roles of Ca2+ channel regulation and ER stress signaling in pathological cardiac remodeling. Those projects paved the way for the independent research I’m pursuing here at The University of Alabama.

 

What about your area of research (or career) excites you the most?

Developing questions and figuring out how to answer them is very rewarding, and the thrill of discovery is addictive. However, research can also be tedious and frustrating. What keeps me going is the idea that my work will help push the field forward and aid in the development of new treatments for heart disease.

 

What are the most challenging aspects of your research/career?

The biggest challenges are similar for most scientists, I think: finding the money, time, and people to get experiments done.

 

What advice would you offer to undergraduate and graduate students?

Find out what you really want from life and make your career decisions accordingly. Many people want to live in a certain place, have a certain vision for their family lives, or make a certain amount of money. It’s important to think about your career path and determine if it is compatible with your long-term goals. Choose a career that enables you to live the life you want.

 

What do you like most about your job at UA?

It’s a beautiful campus, and I have a lot of independence. My new colleagues have been very supportive and have done a lot to make me feel at home here.

 

What are the biggest challenges?

The current funding environment is challenging, and it can be difficult to compete when you are newly independent. But dealing with that is a necessary part of the job.

Dr. Jason Pienaar

What motivated you to pursue a career in science?

Like many biologists, I was initially interested in a medical career, at least until I took some upper level college courses in population genetics. This was the first time I really struggled with an undergraduate course. The more time I put into trying to understand it, however, the more it grew on me. When it finally dawned on me that one can make predictions of how populations should evolve given their genetic systems and the evolutionary forces acting on them, I was hooked.

 

Describe the path that led you to your current research/career area.

I began my career as an undergraduate in the Genetics department at the University of Pretoria, South Africa, where I also completed my PhD under Dr. Jaco Greeff, an evolutionary biologist who uses game theory modeling to predict the evolution of various animal behaviors, such as fig wasp sex allocation. From there, I took a flight across a continent and then the pond to postdoc with Drs. Thomas Hansen and David Houle at Florida State University. Dr. Hansen and I have continued a long-term collaboration developing phylogenetic comparative methods. It is also here where I met my wife, Dr. Janna Fierst, who now has an office at UA just down the hall from me. Before landing at UA to continue developing theoretical models (this time using them to study Tardigrade evolution), I went on to a few positions and three additional postdocs: one in bioinformatics at the University of Florida with Dr. Lauren McIntyre, one based on further model development at the University of Hawaii with Dr. Marguerite Butler, and then one at the University of Gothenburg in Sweden with Dr. Staffan Andersson. In between all that, I had a brief stint as a faculty member at the University of Pretoria studying fig wasps again, a teaching position at the University of Oregon, where my wife was at the time, and from there, came to UA, where we now both work.

 

What about your area of research (or career) excites you the most?

What excites me most is that I get to apply various aspects of my past experiences in South Africa, Florida, Hawaii, Sweden and Oregon to my current research program. I continue to work on fig wasps in collaboration with Dr. Greeff, I continue to work on model development with Dr. Hansen, I work on collaborative bioinformatic projects with Dr. Fierst, and I have started my own project studying cryptobiosis in tardigrades. Interacting with all these fantastically creative intellectuals enriches my life beyond measure. It is definitely the collaborative nature of science that excites me most.

 

What are the most challenging aspects of your research/career?

Mathematical modeling still does not come easily to me, and culturing enough tardigrades to extract high quality DNA from is also proving a challenge. These are both within my control though, and from experience, I know it’s simply a matter of time before solutions present themselves. Learning to manage time differently is probably my biggest challenge. Unlike a post-doctoral position or a purely teaching position, a research/teaching faculty position does not come with large chunks of uninterrupted time to simply sit and think about things. Having said all that, simply having these challenges means I have the job of my dreams, with a lab in which to conduct research, for which I am very grateful.

 

What advice would you offer to undergraduate and graduate students?

For undergraduates, take the time to get to know your professors outside of the classroom environment (use office hours, volunteer research, etc.). If you are interested in a research career, you are surrounded by people who have spent many years doing exactly that. These professors will give you invaluable insight into the life of a research scientist. For graduate students, much the same advice, except to broaden the field to postdocs and faculty outside your own institute (through conferences, workshops, lab visits, etc.) One of the best bits of advice I got when just starting as a graduate student was to realize that even the most famous scientists are only human and are generally very happy to talk to people, so don’t be afraid to go up to them and start talking. Nine times out of ten, they will appreciate it.

 

What do you like most about your job at UA?

Interacting with my colleagues professionally and socially. I strongly believe that any university is generally stocked with well-meaning, smart, considerate people, and a big and still growing department like that at UA means there will be many more opportunities for such interactions here in Tuscaloosa.

Dr. Tyler Hodges

What motivated you to pursue a career in science?

It was working at a local pharmacy in high school and then a USDA laboratory in college that spurred my interest in research. I also had several teachers along the way who were important influences.

 

Describe the path that led you to your current research/career area.

After entering Pharmacy School, I became more interested in research than practicing. I did a B.S. and M.S. in Pharmaceutical Sciences, then my Ph.D. in Microbiology. Following that, I went into the startup biotechnology industry, originally with a company developing a polymer-based therapeutic delivery system. I later joined the faculty at a small private university, but continued strong ties in industry, particularly in the areas of biologically functional antimicrobial coatings and microbial fermentation. All of these experiences have led to broad research interests in applied microbiology and a desire to provide experiential learning opportunities for students through industry partnerships.

 

What about your area of research (or career) excites you the most?

In research, I’ve always been most excited by the discovery and using those discoveries in an application. Related to teaching, it’s seeing my students do well and succeed at their goals.

 

What are the most challenging aspects of your research/career?

Time and funding

 

What advice would you offer to undergraduate and graduate students?

Apply yourself and maximize your opportunities. Consider a broad range of career options.

 

What do you like most about your job at UA?

My colleagues and students, as well as the impressive range of research and potential for collaboration.

 

What are the biggest challenges?

The standard things coming into a new position: setting things up, getting used to the system and the class sizes.