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BMMB Graduate Program

BMMB Features: TJ Russell

Image of TJ Russell

The Biochemistry and Molecular Biology (BMB) Department is fortunate to have a multitude of exceptional graduate students within its Biochemistry, Microbiology and Molecular Biology (BMMB) Program dedicated to developing their research and teaching skills.  Our students are making discoveries and generating independent knowledge through their research within our labs.

Meet TJ Russell, a graduate student working towards earning his Ph.D. in the BMMB Program.  TJ, a native of Plymouth, Massachusetts, developed an interest in medical science while in high school, a fact he credits to his mom who works as an oncology nurse.   Throughout his high school career TJ volunteered at Beth Israel Deaconess Hospital where he was tasked with moving patients throughout the hospital and transporting prescriptions to its many different wings.

It was TJ’s interactions with the doctors at Beth Israel Deaconess that ultimately led him to attend the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, and pursue his degree in biochemistry and molecular biology.  “I was very impressed with the sheer amount of information that they were able to recall and put into the decisions that they made,” said TJ.  “I thought that if I sought out an educational background similar to theirs, I could be as informed as they are someday.”


While at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, TJ still wasn’t sure whether he wanted to pursue a career in the medical field or as a researcher.  Inspired by his volunteer work in high school, and his interactions with the doctors, he joined the laboratory of Michelle Farkas, Assistant Professor of Chemistry.  The Farkas group investigates the link between circadian gene expression programs and cancer progression. Specifically, her work aims to understanding why circadian processes are disrupted in cancer cells, and whether the degree of disruption influences the severity of the disease.  TJ’s work within the laboratory helped him realized that a career in research was the right decision for him.

TJ chose Penn State for his graduate work due to the extensive diversity of research pursuits the University offered to incoming students.  “Due to this, I was able to experience research projects in microbiology, human cell biology, and parasitology in my first year here,” said TJ.  “This made it very easy to decide on what career path to follow.”

Currently TJ works in the Llinás Laboratory where he is mentored by Manuel Llinás, Professor of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, and Chemistry.  The Llinás Laboratory uses genomics and molecular biology techniques to understand how the malaria parasite controls its gene expression programs during human infection. The Laboratory believes that by uncovering more about these processes, it can find better ways to combat the parasite and reduce the prevalence of this deadly disease.  

Image of TJ Russell

TJ’s research focuses on the chemical disruption of the malaria parasite Plasmodium falciparum’s gene regulation machinery.  He plans to do this through a combination of inhibition assays and genetic investigations with the target protein PfAP2-Sp, which is a DNA binding transcription factor.  His work, to date, has indicated that PfAP2-Sp is essential for Plasmodium falciparum to grow in human hosts.

TJ chose to investigate the PfAP2-Sp transcription factor because of its DNA binding domain structure has been solved by X-ray crystallography, which allowed him to effectively use the structure to predict what chemical interactions might allow for inhibition.  His investigation into whether PfAP2-Sp can be chemically inhibited is important because this protein is unlike any protein in the human host. This fact makes it, and every parasite protein within this gene family, a potential drug target. 

TJ’s research is dissecting the potential for chemical inhibition of PfAP2-Sp in two main ways. First, he is working with the DNA binding domain of the protein, and several predicted inhibitors, to identify which, if any, have the ability to eliminate its DNA binding activity.  Second, he is developing genetic assays on the malaria parasite to determine what the exact role of the target protein is during an infection. Information collected through his research will be critical in determining whether the effect of chemical inhibition is ‘on target’.  This is due to his ability to compare and contrast the outcome of assays conducted on the purified target protein with the outcome of assays done using live malaria parasites.

Outside of the laboratory TJ enjoys being active and spending time in the great outdoors.  Since coming to State College three years ago, he has joined a local volleyball league.  “I had always wanted to play but my high school did not have a team,” said TJ.  “I was very happy to be able to revisit it later in life.”

Additionally, for the past two years TJ has volunteered at Penn State’s Shaver’s Creek Environmental Center where he can be found training animals and leading birds of prey information sessions at the raptor center on Saturdays.  His main responsibility is conducting training exercises with the Center’s various birds of prey.  TJ’s training helps enrich each bird’s life by giving it interactions and novel situations that helps it engage in problem solving behaviors.  He also gets the opportunity to show off the bird’s behaviors and natural history with visitors.


Image of TJ Russell holding a Red-Tail Hawk

One of the behaviors TJ works to teach each bird of prey is to jump onto a scale on command.  This helps the staff and volunteers record their body weight as part of the animal’s regular wellness checks.  His favorite part of working at Shaver’s Creek Environmental Center is the unique bond he is able to develop with each bird of prey he works with.  “They all have very different personalities which makes it interesting to train them,” said TJ.  He enjoys taking a Red-Tailed Hawk named Alula out for walks.  “This serves the dual purpose of letting her experience new sights and allowing me to explain her behavior and physiology to visitors in an up close and personal manner,” says TJ.

TJ wants everyone to know that anyone is encouraged, and able, to apply to volunteer at Penn State’s Shaver’s Creek Environmental Center and can do so by visiting the Center’s Volunteer page and submitting their information.  “I personally had no experience at all when I started working with the animals,” says TJ.  “The staff was happy to help me learn.”  

TJ is one of our many graduate students that has excelled and found success both inside and outside of the laboratory.  His dedication to his scientific pursuits while also making an impact on his local, and the environmental, community is one to be admired and commended.  Well done TJ!  We Are Penn State!