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School of Medicine profiles

May 2012 Archives

May 29, 2012

Joseph Landry, Ph.D.

Joseph Landry, Ph.D.

Joseph Landry, Ph.D., came to the medical school with a solid background in the basic science of epigenetics — how genes are regulated without altering the DNA itself. Now, as an assistant professor in human and molecular genetics, he’s hoping to apply that knowledge to the real-world problem of breast cancer.

Using a mouse model of human breast cancer, Landry investigates how epigenetic processes may help cancerous tumors hide themselves from the body’s immune defenses and how they may contribute to cancer’s spread through metastasis.

Landry earned his Ph.D. in genetics from Stony Brook University where he studied histones. He went on to a postdoctoral fellowship at the National Institutes of Health where he studied chromatin remodeling. Both histones and chromatin are structures that can control the accessibility of genes to be expressed as proteins.

With funding from the V Foundation for Cancer Research and the Jeffress Foundation in hand, Landry was attracted to the MCV Campus because of its expertise in translational research. “I came to VCU for the opportunity to work with [department chair] Paul Fisher, to work with a lot of people who are well-versed in applying basic research findings to develop therapeutics,” he said.

Ananda Amstadter, Ph.D.

Ananda Amstadter, Ph.D.

Ananda Amstadter, Ph.D., has always been interested in the interplay of genes and environment, such as traumatic events, for producing psychiatric conditions. A clinical psychologist, Amstadter joined the Virginia Institute for Psychiatric and Behavioral Genetics at VCU to continue her studies of mental health issues — including post-traumatic stress disorder and substance abuse — in soldiers returning from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

“I want to do nuanced assessments of different types of traumatic events, look at risk and resiliency and personal history of trauma, and relate that to mental health outcomes,” she said. A current project is investigating how acute stress affects drinking behavior in soldiers with different degrees of combat experience and mental health issues.

Amstadter earned her Ph.D. at Auburn University and did a clinical internship at the Medical University of South Carolina. She stayed on in Charleston as faculty until she came to the MCV Campus.

Amstadter says the draw was the institute, directed by Ken Kendler, M.D. She lauds its richness of faculty and multidisciplinary environment. “The field is so complex. Our institute has on faculty psychologists, psychiatrists, statisticians, geneticists and molecular biologists. It’s a rare place.”

Rebecca Etz, Ph.D.

Rebecca Etz, Ph.D.

Rebecca Etz, Ph.D., is a cultural anthropologist who recently joined the family medicine department. That may sound an odd match, but it fits Etz perfectly. “In college, I always imagined I’d be a family doctor,” she says. To learn more, she shadowed general practitioners, but found the reality did not match her expectations. She gravitated to anthropology, getting her Ph.D. at Rutgers.

Next, she took a postdoctoral fellowship at the Robert Wood Johnson Medical School and did research, from the vantage point of an anthropologist, on primary care practice. From that experience, she emerged with two driving motivations: cultural anthropology has a lot to offer primary care practitioners, and current primary care practice does not yet do enough to integrate mental and behavioral health. “For my career to have meaning, I’d like to help figure out how to have medical records give voice to patient concerns and to foster everyday integration of mental and behavioral health into primary care practice,” said Etz.

Etz was excited to come to the MCV Campus because of “the really incredibly gifted team” in the department. “They have an unusual level of passion and enthusiasm for what they do,” she said.

Her current work involves finding exemplars of primary care practice and identifying key attributes — whether innovative staffing or integrated care delivery — from which others could learn and grow.

Leon Avery, Ph.D.

Leon Avery, Ph.D.

Leon Avery, Ph.D., has made a career of studying how genes determine behaviors. He joined the faculty last August as a professor of physiology and biophysics to run his lab alongside a former student of his from the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center — Young-Jai You, Ph.D., an assistant professor of biochemistry and molecular biology.

Avery studies feeding behavior in the nematode worm Caenorhabditis elegans. “Worms have a simple nervous system of 302 neurons and very good genetics,” he says, which makes them an ideal model with which to study how food and nutrition regulates behavior. Humans, in contrast, are a much more complicated system, but findings in the worm can inform research in higher animals, he said. “What it does is gives you a place to look.”

For instance, the molecule TGF-beta is involved in satiety, the signal that says “I’m full. Stop eating.” This molecule is important in human feeding as well and may contribute to the wasting syndrome in some cancer patients.

Avery finds the MCV Campus a good fit for the way he likes to do research. Its size and convenience allow him to spend more time at the lab bench.