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Alumni Corner

To our alumni:
This alumni corner is set up so that current undergraduate students at Binghamton can find out more about varied careers and paths toward those careers that you have taken. If you are willing to share your experience, please contact annatan@binghamton.edu.


JON PIERCE-SHIMOMURA, Ph. D. - Ernest Gallo Clinic and Research Center : U.C.S.F. Medical School. Assistant Professor of Neurobiology, Institute of Neuroscience, University at Austin, jnops@mail.utexas.edu. A website describing his current research interest can be viewed by clicking here.

The account below was written when Jon Pierce-Shimomura was a postdoctoral fellow at UCSF.

I am a post-doctoral research fellow at the Ernest Gallo Clinic and Research Center, which is a division of U.C.S.F. Medical School. Scientists at the Gallo Center study the neural basis for drug and alcohol addiction. Drug and alcohol addiction comprise one of society's worst problems such as contributing to crime, poverty, and broken families. Currently people addicted to drugs and alcohol only receive medical treatment for withdrawal symptoms because there is no effective medical treatment to eliminate the origin of their problem - the compulsive urge to take drugs. With the aim to develop an effective treatment for addiction, we study how the brain changes after consumption of addictive substances.

Before I came to the Gallo Center, I received my Ph.D. in Neuroscience at the University of Oregon. At first, I decided to study neural development in insects, an interest that was cultivated in an Entomology class taught by Dr. Julian Shepherd. I was amazed that the insects that I saw every day in the Nature Preserve could reorganize their whole nervous system say from a crawling plant-eater with 12 legs, to a flying carnivore with 6 legs, within only a few week's time. My first research project in Oregon showed that some of the neurons that move the legs of the caterpillar are recycled to control new muscles in the adult moth, while other leg neurons are programmed to die with a steroid signal. The death and reorganization of neurons triggered by steroids in bugs may be analogous to how neurons in our own brains are re-patterned during the hormonal surges in our teens.

For my first year of grad school I rotated through three different labs to find out which topic I would devote the next four years studying. I found that I was even more interested in a topic I hadn't considered before, studying how neurons control behavior. Because this is such a large topic, I chose to work with a small animal, the tiny nematode C. elegans. I studied how this worm orients its movement up gradients of attractant chemicals with its limited nervous system of 302 neurons. I also studied how it could distinguish between different attractant "tastes" just as we can. Because this worm shares many of the same genes as humans, the fundamental discoveries that we make regarding the function of its nervous system often directly apply to us. Scientists are now trying to find out whether the genes that control taste discrimination in worms are the same as those in humans. Studying simple animals such as C. elegans can be a great way to make significant discoveries rapidly without the complications and time required for studying humans.

My interest in studying the neural basis for behavior led me to work at the Gallo Center where I'm studying how addictive drugs alter the electrophysiological properties of neurons in C. elegans. Although I am beginning a post-doctoral positions that will last only 3 to 5 years, I am still undecided about my long-term goal. With a Ph.D. and some post-doctoral experience, one can become a professor teaching and conducting their own research at a four-year university such as Binghamton, or one can easily get a more lucrative job in the biotech industry.

The requirements for grad school are good grades, the GRE, and at least one year of research. This last component is most crucial, as it will help determine whether you enjoy spending many hours in the lab doing research. You can gain research experience during your Binghamton career by working with one of your professors for credit and/or money. Another popular option to decide if research is right for you is to get a job as a lab technician at a research institution for a year or two after you graduate. Look for technician jobs on the internet, or just contact a professor that you are interested in working with at a well-funded institution and ask if they are looking for an enthusiastic technician.

My advice to Binghamton students interested in research is to learn how to think critically rather than to just memorize all of the details in your textbooks. If you continue with research, you might find that you will shatter an old conventional idea with a new discovery. This happens all of the time! Also, I would emphasize learning to write clearly and succinctly. This is essential to write successful applications, grants, and scientific papers. You will not gain this ability by only signing up for classes with multiple-choice tests. Challenge yourself with classes that require writing. I found that the Scientific Writing class offered by the Biology Dept was especially helpful. [This is Dr. Alan Haber's Biology 431 class.] Lastly, perhaps the most amazing breakthroughs are being made by biologists with math and computer skills. Mining genome databases, modeling neural networks, and predicting protein structure and interactions all require this kind of knowledge. So please don't shy away from statistics, calculus, differential equations and computer programming classes. You would be amazed at the starting salaries in biotech for people who pair a Bachelors degree in Biology with a math and computer education!

For further details regarding Mr. Pierce- Shimomura's research on the neural basis of alcohol addiction, please consult http://pub.ucsf.edu/today/news.php?news_id=200312108. For more on alcohol and alcoholism, the NIAAA (National Institute on Alcohol and Alcoholism) can be found at http://www.niaaa.nih.gov/faq/faq.htm. Mr. Pierce- Shimomura is also a contributor to such articles as "Steroid hormones act directly to trigger segment-specific programmed cell death of identified motoneurons in vitro" in Developmental Biology and "Neural mechanisms of behavioral plasticity: metamorphosis and learning in Manduca Sexta" in Brain, Behavior, and Evolution, and was cited for his work in "Simple Nematode May Give Navy a New Way to Find Mines."

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Last Updated: 5/5/09