Joaquin N. Lugo, Ph.D.
Department of Psychology and Neuroscience, Institute of Biomedical Studies
Leveraging opportunities to define your career path
When I was a student at Baylor, I was initially a Psychology major. After I completed the Introduction to Neuroscience course at Baylor University I quickly switched my major to Neuroscience. I wanted to understand how cells in the brain can communicate with each other and how this communication can lead to complex behaviors. During my freshman year at Baylor, neuroscience was a newer major so there were not many students in this major. Therefore, I was able to volunteer in several neuroscience labs. This was a highly valuable experience because I was able to fine tune which area of research I wanted to focus in. One of the labs that had the largest impact on my career was working with Dr. Jaime Diaz-Granados. During my time in his lab, I assisted in investigating how alcohol exposure during adolescence led to long-term impacts on behavior and neurochemistry.
My undergraduate research experience with Dr. Diaz-Granados led me to apply to Dr. Sandra Kelly’s lab at the University of South Carolina in Columbia, SC. Her research was in investigating the effects of neonatal alcohol exposure on behavior. I was accepted into several graduate programs, but Dr. Diaz-Granados highly recommended Dr. Kelly’s lab so I accepted her offer to join her lab. Dr. Kelly had a large impact on my training in science, writing papers, and in grant writing. During my first semester in her lab I applied to 5 different predoctoral programs. One trait I took on early in my career was to apply for any program I was eligible to apply to. I received an NIH NRSA predoctoral fellowship (F31) to examine how alcohol exposure during early development impacts the amygdala neurochemistry and function. The funding from the NRSA allowed me to solely focus on research and provided funds to attend additional conferences that I would not have been able to attend for the remaining four years of graduate school.
For my postdoctoral experience I moved to Baylor College of Medicine with Dr. Anne Anderson. During my postdoc training my research focus changed from alcohol research to understanding the neural mechanisms that underlie epileptogenesis. My specific area of research focus was to how seizures impacted potassium channels in the hippocampus. Dr. Anderson was a great mentor and helped me to further develop my grant writing skills. During my time in her lab I was accepted into the NINDS-funded Society for Neuroscience's Neuroscience Scholars Program. I also received a Research Supplements to Promote Diversity in Health-Related Research to fund my postdoctoral research, an Epilepsy Foundation postdoctoral grant, and an NIH NRSA postdoctoral (F32) grant. The grant writing experience I received in Dr. Anderson’s lab had a large impact on my professional development. I believe that one of the reasons I received several offers for faculty positions was due to my grant writing experience. The NINDS funded Neuroscience Scholars Program (NSP) and funding through my postdoc fellowships allowed for me to attend numerous conferences and receive other types of neuroscience training.
One experience that had a strong positive experience in my professional career was being a student in the Neurobiology course at the Marine Biological Institutes. During this time, I was able to learn a range of new neuroscience techniques from the top scientists in the field. This experience also rekindled my love for science. I was at a point in my career where I was not sure if I wanted to stay in academia. I had been in a postdoc position for four years and I was starting to look at other options. However, while I was at MBL, I was able to be around people who love science. This is a place where highly successful scientists go so they can run their own hands-on experiments. I then returned to MBL as a Grass Fellow the following year. During this fellowship, I conducted research on how seizures in the zebrafish larvae impacts their learning and memory. These experiences would not have been possible without the financial assistance from NSP and NRSA fellowship funds, which were funded by NIH/NINDS.
For the past eight years I have been a faculty member in the department of psychology and neuroscience at Baylor University. For me it has been an incredible experience. I have a perfect blend of research and teaching responsibilities. The main challenge for me during my early assistant professor time has been to publish and apply for grants. One habit that I have cultivated in myself and in my lab is daily writing. I was introduced to the daily writing technique from the NINDS funded program Broadening the Representation of Academic Investigators in NeuroScience (BRAINS), where I was exposed to the idea to write for at least 30 minutes per day. As I and my lab have kept this habit, our productivity has moved from producing 1-2 papers per year to now 5-8 papers per year in the past few years! I also submit between 4-7 grants per year. In terms of grant writing, I have been fortunate to have been funded by the training program at NINDS (Grant Writing Workshop for Diversity Investigators) and through the Society for Neuroscience grants training program to develop my grant writing skills. These trainings have further fine-tuned my grant writing skills. I have applied for many grants while I have been a faculty member and received my first NIH R15 AREA award during my fifth year, which was renewed just this past month. The objectives of the R15 AREA program are to provide support for meritorious research, to strengthen the research environment of schools that have not been major recipients of NIH support, and to expose available undergraduate and/or graduate students in such environments to meritorious research. The R15 funding was necessary for me to become an associate professor with tenure. In addition, the funds allow for my lab to conduct a high level of research.
One important lesson I have learned from my career so far is to keep learning new skill sets. My early education was dependent upon memorizing information and performing well on tests. As I transitioned to graduate school and during my postdoc period I had to learn to be more independent and design my own experiments within my advisor’s area of expertise. Now that I have my own lab, I have learned to manage the time of those in my lab and learn how to lead them to be productive. These are not skills I have developed in isolation. I have been fortunate that NIH has provided several opportunities for me and I have taken every opportunity that is offered.
Individuals with childhood epilepsies can have long-term alterations in social behavior and share a high comorbidity with the developmental disability autism. In addition, those with certain types of childhood epilepsies can have a mental handicap rate of 21-34% and up to 51-57% have learning disorders. A possible mediator of the behavioral deficits that are seen in individuals with epilepsy and autism is the mammalian target of rapamycin (mTOR) signaling pathway. Genetic disorders involving the upstream regulators Phosphatase and tensin homolog (PTEN) and Tuberous sclerosis complex (TSC) of the mTOR pathway are commonly associated with autism, cognitive deficits, and epilepsy. It is unclear whether this pathway mediates the social and cognitive deficits seen in developmental epilepsy. My research is focused on the role of the mTOR pathway as a potential molecular mechanism underlying social deficits, other autistic-like behaviors, and cognitive deficits associated with early-life seizures. The central hypothesis of my current research is that mTOR pathway signaling plays a role in the mechanism underlying long-term behavioral alterations associated with early-life seizures. My long-term goal is to identify the molecular correlates for behavioral abnormalities that occur after early-life seizures and to develop therapeutic targets to treat these behavioral abnormalities.