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Scientist Spotlight: Brandon Henderson, PhD
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Scientist Spotlight, 9th Edition, July 2017

From Our Field…

 Scientist Spotlight: Brandon Henderson, PhD


Interview conducted by: Gregory Powell, PhD

Dr. Brandon Henderson’s research focuses on the molecular neuropharmacology of nicotine addiction. As a graduate student in the lab of Dr. Dennis McKay at the Ohio State University, he focused on discovering and designing small molecules that target nicotinic receptors as a means to improve tobacco cessation. His postdoctoral research in the laboratory of Dr. Henry Lester at the California Institute of Technology was directed at examining the neurobiology of addiction and how nicotine alters midbrain neurons of the nigrostriatal reward pathway. Further, he also received additional training in animal behavior assays and electrochemistry in the labs of Dr. Marina Picciotto and Dr. Nii Addy, respectively, at Yale University. Currently, in his lab at Marshall University, he uses pharmacology, medicinal chemistry, electrophysiology, electrochemistry, microscopy, and animal models to: 1) determine how addictive drugs modulate neurons involved in reward pathways, 2) study how these drugs alter behavior and dopamine release, and 3) discover novel small molecules that may aid in cessation. Through the progression of his career, he has achieved honors, including a NIDA K99/R00 Pathway to Independence Award (2016), NIDA NRSA F32 Postdoctoral Fellowship (2012), Norman J. Uretsky Fellowship in Neuropharmacology (2010), Chauncey D. Leake Memorial Award in Pharmacology (2010), NIDA Pre-doctoral Diversity Enhancement Fellowship (2009), and Patil Fellowship in Pharmacology (2009). One of his most treasured awards is the Welcome Trust 2015 Nicotinic Acetylcholine Receptor Meeting’s award for a “Scientist of Low-Stature”. This was an award selected by the top scientists in the nicotinic receptor field present at this meeting to honor a young investigator (non-faculty). Outside of science, his most treasured honor was the right to trial for the 2016 Olympic Team for the lightweight men’s double in the sport of rowing. Dr. Henderson provides insight based on his unique career trajectory as follows:


1.    Why did you choose to become a scientist

I originally wanted to be a medical doctor growing up in rural Ohio (Clayton, OH) where a few of my best friends had fathers that ran a family practice. In rural Ohio, much like all rural America, tobacco addiction is a big problem. I remember asking my friends’ fathers what they can do about tobacco addiction and a few of them mentioned that many doctors couldn’t do much (this was the late 80s / early 90s) because “the science” can’t direct them very well. This was my first and critical nudge toward research science.


2.    What are your current research interests?

My current research interest is the study of how tobacco flavorants alter the addiction to nicotine. My hometown and current city of residence (Huntington, WV) is currently dealing with issue of opioid abuse. Given the overlap of opioid abuse and tobacco use, I am also very interested in studying how the co-use of opioids and nicotine alter brain reward mechanisms.


3.    How have your research interests evolved over the course of your career?

My original discipline was chemistry, so my initial interest was the discovery and design of small molecules that could be used for nicotine cessation. As a graduate student, I learned through the process of designing ligands to target α4β2 nicotinic receptors that I didn’t understand drug reward mechanisms sufficiently. This turned my eyes toward neuroscience and neurobiology as a focus for postdoctoral studies. Now as an independent (interdependent) investigator, I am attempting to combine my knowledge of neurobiology and pharmacology to better understand nicotine’s actions in the brain and how I can use my science to help the people who want to quit smoking.


4.    What do you view as the main challenges for your field? From your perspective, what do you view will be the next biggest breakthrough(s)?

One of the biggest hurdles is that we still don’t have many tools to study some of the ‘complex’ subtypes of nicotinic receptors (those with multiple α subunits: α4, α6, α5, etc) in in vivo systems. We also still don’t really understand how these ‘complex’ subtypes assemble in a pentameric form. I think this could be a significant breakthrough in the field as it will undoubtedly shed new light into nicotine’s actions in the brain. 


5.    Have you achieved a balance between work and personal priorities? How do you prioritize work and non-work activities?

Sadly, I learned the proper balance from past failures. As a graduate student, I thought I had to forgo all my hobbies and social life and focus solely on science. That burned me out so fast that I almost quit my graduate program. Luckily, my PhD advisor knew what I was going through and ‘instructed’ me to pursue some hobbies. From that, I learned that I do everything better (experiments, writing, communicating) when I feel I can pursue the things that I love to do.


6.    What strategies have you found to be most beneficial for managing all of your commitments?

Meticulous organization and coffee. I use Google calendar a lot because I can access it wherever I go. I post all of my deadlines, meetings, and important dates in it and add reminders a week or two in advance. One of the best things I learned as a postdoc was when to say ‘no’. The easiest way to fail in commitments is to over-commit. The best way to combat that is to be honest with the members of your lab and department when you can’t handle anything new.


7.    What is the best advice that you ever received from one of your mentors?

Both my PhD advisor, Dennis McKay, and postdoctoral advisor, Henry Lester, told me that I should be having fun in academic science. I think that was a key turning point for me because I found that the ‘fun’ I have with collaborators and lab members have helped me get through all of the difficulties intrinsic to science: failed experiments, failed grant proposals, rejected papers, and uncooperative mice. It also taught me the importance of cultivating a healthy environment. If everyone in the lab is happy and healthy, everything works better.


8.    What advice would you have for students starting their academic career? What qualities do you look for when recruiting graduate students or postdocs?

Unfortunately, one of the most important attributes is the ability to handle failure. It is unfortunate because we only know if someone can deal with it by actually going through difficulties. The next most important attribute, in my opinion, is congeniality. The days of lone-wolf scientists are over and we have to work with people to do science of high impact. If you can’t work with anyone, or nobody wants to work with you, then you won’t make it too far in science anymore.


9.    What advice would you have for postdoctoral trainees transitioning into faculty positions?

The best thing you can do is have your peers criticize all of your application materials. Many search committees have way too many applicants to interview them all so they make initial judgements based upon all of the materials that you submit. Be meticulous in their preparation because one mistake can ruin your chances. After that, practice your job-talk with people who will criticize you honestly. I bombed my first job talk because I practiced with friends who were a bit too nice in their comments.


10.    What career/life choices do you feel have been the most beneficial to result in your success as a younger investigator?

The choice of who will be your primary mentor is a pivotal choice for all young scientists. My choice to leave home and pursue postdoctoral studies at Caltech with Henry Lester is clearly what set me be the scientist I am today. Henry provided an environment that allowed me to learn the techniques I use on a daily basis but also allowed me to co-mentor his students, postdocs, and even gain extra public speaking opportunities. Not only that, he also connected me with co-mentors from other institutions and disciplines. 


12.    What do you foresee as your main career milestones that you hope to achieve over the next 5-10 years?

One milestone I hope to achieve in ~5 years is to mentor a student through a PhD program. As an African American in science, I’ve always been troubled by how few minorities there are in scientific disciplines. The prospect of mentoring and graduating a minority student is a prominent goal for me and I would consider it a huge milestone in my career to contribute to diversity in science.

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