Success Stories: Ketema Paul

Ketema PaulKetema Paul, Ph.D.
Associate Professor
Department of Integrative Biology and Physiology
University of California, Los Angeles



Following your passions: creativity and science go hand-in-hand

One of the most pivotal experiences in my career was being awarded an F31 NRSA Fellowship to study the pharmacology of generation and entrainment of circadian rhythms in Dr. Elliott Albers’ lab at Georgia State University. At the time, I didn’t realize how much I would learn from that experience, but it was instrumental in teaching me how to run my own lab and preparing me for an independent research career.

My two passions in life are science and music. My first experience with research was as an undergraduate at Howard University. In my junior year, I got a position in a neuroscience lab in the Biology Department studying the visual system of fireflies. After attending the Society for Neuroscience meeting that year, I was hooked. Still, I sometimes had doubts about whether science could satisfy my creative side. Although I knew that I wanted to go to graduate school, after finishing college, I decided to take time off to pursue music. I relocated to Atlanta and ended up taking three years off to immerse myself in the hip hop scene.

The time I spent away from science was important, as it allowed me to mature and taught me a lot about perseverance in the face of failure, but I missed the academic environment. One of my gigs was as a DJ at the Georgia State University radio station, and one day I decided to walk over and see what was going on in neurobiology. That’s how I met my graduate advisor, Dr. Albers. He convinced me to enroll in a master’s program, since I was going to be on campus anyway.

After a year of the master’s, I had a project that I was really excited about and an outstanding mentor in Dr. Albers, so I switched to the PhD program.

With Dr. Albers’ guidance, I applied for and obtained an F31 NRSA Fellowship. This experience was transformative. Until that point, my mentors had dictated all of my work. The NRSA allowed me to propose and conduct my own research, control my own budget, manage my own time, and even oversee my own space in the lab. The F31 taught me how to be an independent investigator.

During graduate school, I also came to realize that creativity and science go hand-in-hand; you have to be creative to be a successful scientist. I love thinking of difficult questions and designing the most effective experiments using the resources I have. If your experiments are designed well, you learn from any result, even if your hypothesis is wrong.

Creativity is also necessary for communicating your results. Although we often think of scientific writing as technical, communicating your findings in an understandable way takes real imagination, especially if it’s a complex system or problem. My approach is to present the information as a story, always keeping in mind the “big picture” relevance of what I’m trying to convey. The more compelling you can make your story, the more your reader will be engaged in the argument you are presenting.

Upon completing my doctorate, I obtained a postdoctoral fellowship at Northwestern University where I studied sleep regulatory mechanisms under Dr. Fred Turek. Three years after that, I accepted a position as Assistant Professor at Morehouse School of Medicine, where I am currently an NINDS-funded Associate Professor working on sleep disorders and the interaction between gender and recovery from sleep loss.

What I’ve learned over the course of my career is that science is a lot bigger than many people realize. If you find something you enjoy and are good at, the sky is the limit. For me, creativity and variety were most important, so I made it priority to incorporate them into my career, and the payoff has been enormous.

- As told to Lauren Ullrich

Current Research

Sleep loss can severely impair the ability to perform, yet the ability to recover from sleep loss is not well understood. Sleep regulatory processes are assumed to lie exclusively within the brain mainly due to the strong behavioral manifestations of sleep. Whole-body knockout of the circadian clock gene Bmal1 in mice is known to alter several aspects of sleep. Surprisingly, we found that restoring Bmal1 function exclusively in skeletal muscle of these Bmal1 knockout mice, not the brain, rescued most of their altered sleep phenotypes. Moreover, overexpression or knockout of Bmal1 in skeletal muscle had opposing effects on electroencephalographic sleep traits and reduced the sleep-rebound after sleep loss. Overall, these findings strongly implicate skeletal muscle as a direct regulator of sleep.

Rescuing Bmal1 in skeletal muscle but not brain restores non-rapid eye movement (NREM) sleep amount.

Rescuing Bmal1 in skeletal muscle but not brain restores non-rapid eye movement (NREM) sleep amount.