In this edition of BMB’s Alumni Spotlight, we feature Aaron Gitler, Ph.D.
Aaron holds the title of The Stanford Medicine Basic Science Professor, and Professor of Genetics at Stanford University’s School of Medicine. He is an alumnus of Penn State, earning his undergraduate degree in Science in 2000. While a student at Penn State, Aaron conducted undergraduate research in the Thomas Laboratory, under the mentorship of Associate Professor of Biology and of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, Claire Thomas, Ph.D.
After graduating from Penn State, Aaron continued his education at the University of Pennsylvania’s Perelman School of Medicine and earned his Ph.D. in 2004. While at the University of Pennsylvania, he studied under the mentorship of William Wikoff Smith Professor or Cardiovascular Research, Jonathan A. Epstein, M.D.
After earning his Ph.D., Aaron conducted his postdoctoral fellowship training at the Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research under the direction of the late Susan Lindquist, Ph.D. In 2007 he assumed his first faculty role as an Assistant Professor of Cell and Developmental Biology at the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Medicine, a position he held until 2012. In 2012 Aaron traveled cross country to become a member of the faculty at Stanford University, where he still resides today.
Throughout his career, Aaron has earned numerous accolades including:
- Being named a Pew Scholar in the Biomedical Sciences
- Being named a Rita Allen Scholar
- Receiving the NIH Director’s New Innovator Award
- Being named a “Scientist to Watch,” in the August 2010 edition of The Scientist
- Receiving the Sheila Essay Award for ALS Research
- Receiving the Penn State University Eberly College of Science Alumni Society’s Outstanding Science Alumni Award
Aaron’s research focuses on the understanding of protein misfolding, and more specifically the disastrous neurodegenerative diseases (Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, and ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease) caused by protein-misfolding. He believes that understanding, at a mechanistic level, the cellular consequences of protein misfolding will help to suggest potential strategies for therapeutic intervention. Using baker’s yeast, Saccharomyces cerevisiae, as a model system he hypothesizes that the mechanisms employed to cope with them are likely conserved from yeast to man. Aaron’s long-term goal is to identify the critical genes and cellular pathways affected by misfolded human disease proteins.
Let’s chat with Aaron, 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 Stanford University?
I am a professor and I run a research laboratory and teach genetics. My laboratory is investigating the mechanisms of human neurodegenerative diseases, like Parkinson's disease and ALS (also known as Lou Gehrig's disease). We are trying to figure out the causes of these diseases and then to develop therapeutic strategies.
What was it that made you want to come to Penn State, and BMB, to pursue your education?
Penn State had a wonderful reputation, and I was attracted to the opportunities to perform undergraduate research in a top notch laboratory even as a freshman. The BMB major was exciting because I could take classes and learn about the latest in cell biology, biochemistry, molecular biology, and genetics. I was even able to take some graduate level BMB classes as a senior.
How do you feel Penn State, and BMB, prepared you for your current position or career?
My time at Penn State, and BMB in particular, greatly prepared me for my current position. I learned how to think like a scientist, how to ask questions, present my research, and to work in a team. Because I took upper-level cell and molecular biology classes, including graduate level classes in biochemistry, my classes in graduate school (at the University of Pennsylvania) were not difficult. Because of my undergraduate research experiences, I was able to hit the ground running in my thesis lab and this helped me to be successful.
Did you conduct research while at Penn State? Where was your research conducted and what was its focus?
I was fortunate to conduct research with Dr. Claire Thomas, whose lab studies the cytoskeleton and its role in many different fundamental aspects of cell biology and development. This was my first research experience and I learned so much from her about both how to perform experiments but more importantly how to be a scientist. She taught me how to design experiments, critically analyze data, and how to read the primary literature. Almost all of the things I do as a scientist today I first learned from Dr. Thomas.
Share at least one interesting/fun fact about yourself.
In 2020 I created a Zoom-based neuroscience seminar series, called Neuro Zoom, that has been surprisingly popular. It started out as a way to talk about science with my friends but now has grown to a worldwide event and we even have our own TikTok channel.
What do you like to do when you’re not at work?
I enjoy traveling with my family, cycling, and cooking.
Advice from Aaron to future generations of scientists:
Penn State is the best place on earth. Enjoy your time there (I stayed for 5 years!). Almost everything I am doing today as a scientist can be traced back to something I learned as an undergraduate researcher in the BMB Department at Penn State.