Triangle Spotlight, October 2015: Duke Professors

This column, a new and recurring series of The Triangle Transmitter, will focus on the ongoing research in the academic institutions around the Triangle. This month, I talked with two Duke Neurobiology professors at different stages in their careers.

Jeremy Kay, PhD
Dr. Jeremy Kay is an Assistant Professor in the Neurobiology and Ophthalmology departments. Dr. Kay is intrigued with development of neuronal circuits and how cell-to-cell recognition affects the wiring of circuits. Specifically, his lab is looking for the molecular basis of how neurons find other neurons and make wiring decisions using the “simple” model system of the retina. This is an excellent system to work with, since the morphology, function and development of the retina has been known for some time. There are countless mouse models of retinal diseases and disorders, which Dr. Kay can use to find molecules to treat eye disease. The Kay lab uses mouse genetics to label neighboring cells of the same classification with different colors for easy identification, to knock genes out and to investigate how the development of the retina is perturbed. He is excited about a new project in which he will use live imaging of retinal explants to follow the developing retina over time.

I wondered about the moment when Dr. Kay realized that research was the career for him. He revealed that his undergraduate mentor at Columbia, Dr. Darcy Kelley, was instrumental in his discovery of laboratory work. When he entered her lab, she gave him a project-but he did not know any of the techniques needed to answer the questions. At first, this challenge was overwhelming, but he soon learned he really enjoyed teaching himself new techniques and figuring out creative ways to handle the tasks. Dr. Kelley explained to him that a possible career in science would certainly take a lot of work and commitment. After undergrad, Dr. Kay worked in a lab for two years to ensure he wanted this career. The lab work cemented his ambition and, once at graduate school, he knew that laboratory research would be his career.

Dr. Kay has been with Duke for over two years, and I asked him about the challenges of setting up a new lab. He said that he intellectually knew what he needed to do – fill an empty lab with people, equipment and reagents. However, once he actually saw the space in person, it was a bit overwhelming. But one year later, he looked around and realized it was done!
Another challenging aspect was the decisions he had to make about the research direction of the lab. Choosing one research path ensured that the door would be closed on other experiments and he had to trust he was making correct decisions. Now that the lab has been operational for a few years and funding is secured, Dr. Kay is excited about the progress being made and how well his lab members are working together

Nicole Calakos, MD, PhD
Dr. Nicole Calakos is an Associate Professor with the Department of Neurobiology. Dr. Calakos is interested in understanding the mechanisms of synaptic plasticity and how specific types of synaptic plasticity influence behaviors. Her experiments probe these areas at two levels. One is investigating the “nuts and bolts” of the molecular machinery affecting synaptic plasticity and the changing strength and nature of neurons. Another is examining the behavioral significance of specific plasticity and finding possible therapeutics to help patients. She is particularly drawn to the dysfunction of the basal ganglia circuitry, as seen in the movement disorders dystonia and Tourette’s syndrome as well as neuropsychiatric diseases. Utilizing brain slices from mouse models of these diseases, the lab takes measurements of synaptic strength and integrity using electrophysiological techniques.

Dr. Calakos likes to say she has a “dual citizenship” with her MD and PhD backgrounds. Seeing patients with diseases and disorders reveals the behavior linked to the neurological disorders. In the lab, she investigates the disorders on a molecular level to understand the intricate details of the brain. She enjoys bridging the gap between the basic science researchers and the doctors working with patients. She encourages non-clinical researchers to take advantage of talking with medical doctors to see what is needed in the clinical world, and then develop the tools and techniques in the research laboratories. Collaborations among researchers from multiple backgrounds are energizing parts of science that Dr. Calakos truly enjoys.

As a professor with 10 years of experience, Dr. Calakos would never have envisioned when she first started the things she does now. One big component she enjoys is mentoring students and post-docs and helping them develop their careers. Additionally, academia has allowed Dr. Calakos the flexibility to branch into new areas of research. Creating small projects for undergraduates and rotation students have serendipitously developed into drug discovery and drug screening that her lab is investigating. Research is a dynamic environment and Dr. Calakos enjoys adapting new techniques to answer ever more detailed questions in her research.

-Story by Stephanie Heflin, PhD, Duke University 

This article originally appeared in the October 2015 issue of The Triangle Transmitter.

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