Alumni Spotlight, featuring Zachary Gerhart-Hines
In this edition of BMB’s Alumni Spotlight, we feature Zachary Gerhart-Hines, Ph.D.
Zachary is currently an Associate Professor in the Novo Nordisk Foundation Center for Basic Metabolic Research at the University of Copenhagen in Denmark. A 2004 graduate of the Schreyer Honors College at Penn State University, Zachary earned his bachelors of science degree in Biochemistry and Molecular Biology.
After graduating from Penn State, he attended Johns Hopkins University (JHU) School of Medicine for his graduate studies in the Biochemistry – Cellular and Molecular Biology (BCMB) program. While a BCMB student at JHU, he studied under the mentorship of Pere Puigserver, now a Professor of Cell Biology at Harvard’s Medical School. His graduate research focused on nutrient and hormonal control of skeletal muscle and brown adipocyte metabolism. In 2011, Zachary earned his Ph.D.
Zachary remained in the Northeast and conducted his postdoctoral training at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. There he trained under the leadership of Mitchell A. Lazar, MD, Ph.D., Willard and Rhoda Ware Professor in Diabetes and Metabolic Diseases, and developed strong expertise in adipose biology and metabolic phenotyping and discovered that the molecular clock controlled thermogenic fat activity.
In 2014, Zachary accepted a position at the University of Copenhagen and established his own independent research group. The Gerhart-Hines Group explores how neuronal, hormonal, and nutrient signaling networks govern adipose tissue biology and influence systemic energy homeostasis. They employ pharmacological and genetic approaches to interrogate physiological function and to identify opportunities for therapeutically harnessing adipose tissue metabolism.
In 2017, Zachary co-founded and was named the Chief Science Officer of Embark Biotech ApS, based on innovation funding from the European Research Council and Novo Seeds. Novo Seeds is the early-stage investment arm of Novo Holdings, which is wholly owned by the Novo Nordisk Foundation. Embark Biotech ApS is focused on the discovery of novel treatments for obesity and its associated metabolic pathologies through mechanisms that increase energy expenditure.
Let’s chat with Zachary, talk about his experiences while at Penn State, and catch up with what he’s been up to.
What is it that you do at the University of Copenhagen and with Embark Biotech ApS?
Obesity and diabetes are among the biggest health crises of the 21st century. As an Associate Professor in the NNF Center for Basic Metabolic Research at the University of Copenhagen, my lab seeks to understand how the biology of our fat tissue shapes our propensity for and development of these metabolic diseases. I’m also a co-founder and Chief Scientific Officer of the startup company, Embark Biotech ApS, where we use our basic research findings to pharmacologically engineer fat tissue to burn calories and counteract obesity, diabetes, and related diseases.
What was it that made you want to come to Penn State, and BMB, to pursue your education?
I have had a connection to Penn State for as long as I can remember. My mother is an alumna and coming to football games at Beaver Stadium was a tradition. In high school, when I realized I wanted to pursue studies in the biological sciences, the combined reputations of the Eberly College of Science and the Schreyer Honors College cemented Penn State as my top choice.
Did you conduct research while at Penn State? Where was your research conducted and what was its focus?
During my undergraduate studies at Penn State, I conducted research in the lab of Professor Joseph Reese. This mentoring unquestionably stands out as the most influential experience in my development as a scientist. It was in Joe’s lab that I first gained and began honing the core skills for scientific interrogation that I carry with me to this day.
Share at least one interesting/fun fact about yourself.
In addition to the biological sciences, I have always been drawn to the study of ancient cultures. In fact, I nearly minored in classics and ancient Mediterranean studies at Penn State and spent a summer term in Rome, studying Roman history and ancient architecture.
My personal life has also taken an unforeseen path. I was born, raised, and educated through my Ph.D. exclusively in the northeast US. However, in 2014, after meeting my wife, Anne, during our postdoctoral studies at the University of Pennsylvania, we decided to move to her native, Denmark.
What do you like to do when you’re not at work?
My biggest passion is traveling with my family and experiencing the cultural and historical diversity of the world firsthand. My love of cooking has helped fill the void of missing American comfort food while living abroad. However, the time zone difference does present some challenge for following my favorite sports teams, including Nittany Lions football and all Philly sports. But my favorite activity outside of work is playing games and building Legos with our 7-year-old son, Henry, and our miniature American Shepherd, Lloyd (well, mostly preventing Lloyd from eating the Legos while we build).
Once a Nittany Lion, Always a Nittany Lion! We Are Penn State
I was first struck by what it means to be a Penn Stater soon after leaving Happy Valley in 2004, during my first interview at one of the nation’s top biomedical Ph.D. programs. Even though I had prepared, it was hard to not feel intimidated after learning that many of the other applicants had degrees from Ivy League or comparably ranked schools. However, at one point during the interview, the professor looking through my resume exclaimed, “Oh, you’re from Penn State! We really like Penn Staters here.” He went on to explain how the program had more graduates of Penn State’s BMB program than of any other school. I always felt that my education in the BMB department had positioned me well for my next career step but hearing that unbiased affirmation made me feel a swell of pride and an eagerness to continue that tradition of scientific excellence.
Advice from Zachary to future generations of scientists:
The clearest piece of advice I can give to prospective BMB students is: Conduct undergraduate research in one the BMB department labs as early as possible. Grades and classroom knowledge are obviously requisite, but nothing will prepare you for a future in scientific research like hands-on training. In fact, the mere act of working on a research question in a lab, including the associated struggles, failures, and problem-solving, is infinitely more important to your development than the final results you achieve. Moreover, in the BMB department, you will have the opportunity to work directly with a faculty member (as opposed to a student or postdoctoral fellow). I encourage anyone enrolled in the BMB department to take full advantage of this invaluable opportunity.