USF PhD graduate in neuroscience to join laboratory of new Nobel Prize winner

USF Health PhD graduate Justin Trotter leaves this weekend for Stanford University School of Medicine in Palo Alto, CA, where he will work for a recent Nobel Prize winner in medicine.  Trotter’s postdoctoral fellowship will play out in the large laboratory of Stanford neuroscience researcher Thomas Sudhof, MD, a Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator who just last week jointly won the 2013 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for insights into the traffic control system for living cells.

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Justin Trotter, PhD, (left) USF Health neuroscience graduate, with major professor Edwin Weeber, PhD, chief scientific officer of the USF Health Byrd Alzheimer’s Institute.

“That just doesn’t happen very often,” said Edwin Weeber, PhD, professor of molecular pharmacology and physiology and chief scientific officer of the USF Health Byrd Alzheimer’s Institute.   Dr. Weeber was Trotter’s major professor while the young neuroscientist completed his doctoral studies in neuroscience at the Byrd Institute.

“Justin is the most driven graduate student I’ve had the pleasure to mentor,” Dr. Weeber said. “His ability to gain a fellowship with a Nobel Prize winner in one of the country’s top laboratories shows that USF and the Byrd Institute are training the next generation of scientists whose research will make a real difference.”

Trotter successfully defended his doctoral dissertation “Cellular and Molecular Mechanisms of Reelin Signaling in the Adult Hippocampus” on Sept. 27.  His doctoral research focused on signaling pathways important in brain development and their role in molecular mechanisms that give rise to learning and memory and that may be disrupted by Alzheimer’s disease.

“When I spoke to Tom (Sudhof) to endorse Justin’s application to his laboratory, I told him that Justin was the most brilliant young scientist I had ever met,” said Joachim Herz, MD, of the Department of Molecular Genetics, University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center, who served as the external chair for Trotter’s dissertation committee.

“My only concern and advice to Tom was that he should cut his travels short in the future, otherwise he might find Justin running the laboratory upon his return.”

Tom Sudhof

2013 Nobel Prize-winning neuroscience researcher Thomas Sudof, MD

Probing the neurobiology of learning and memory

For a person to think, move, feel or remember, the neurons in that person’s brain must communicate across junctions known as synapses. Increasing evidence has linked impairments in synaptic transmission to diseases such as Alzheimer’s and autism.

Working with Dr. Sudhof’s team, Trotter will still study how nerve cells communicate with one another to precisely exchange information across synapses within millisecond timescales. But at Stanford he will focus on the role of signaling pathways in autism instead of Alzheimer’s.

Trotter was offered postdoctoral fellowships at three of the country’s leading research institutions — the National Institutes of Health Eunice Kennedy Schriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, the Gladstone Institute affiliated with the University of California San Francisco, and, his first choice, Stanford University

He interviewed with Dr. Sudhof and 15 of his postdoctoral fellows July 19 and was offered the position by Dr. Sudhof  himself a week later, well before the Nobel Prize announcement.

“When I saw that he was on a team that made the finalists, I thought wouldn’t it be fun if he actually won,” Trotter said. “Then, the awards committee made the announcement the next day, and people were congratulating me – but I didn’t really do anything.”

Early fascination with science cultivated on a fish farm

Trotter grew up in Palm Bay, FL, but spent most weekends working on a tropical fish farm in nearby Fellsmere, where his father and grandfather operated the acquaculture business. He attributes his early fascination with science to what he learned on the fish farm, including how to breed and care for African cichlids.

In elementary school, while many classmates relied on their parents for help with science fair projects, Trotter looked forward to the challenge of creating and carrying out his own experiments.

“Science projects became my means of self-expression,” said Trotter, who won many regional and state science fair awards throughout middle and high school.  “I enjoyed designing experiments to test assumptions and garner facts about the natural world.”

By 10th grade he worked his way into an independent research project at Florida Institute of Technology, where he studied the molecular biology of starfish fertilization.  During one late-night experiment, Trotter said, he accidently hit his hand on a glass pipette filled with mercury. A hospital X-ray showed the shattered glass (from the broken pipette) scattered around a joint where the mercury injected.

“After about a week my hand was swollen and I had to get it operated on,” he said. “To this day I still have a small black, metallic circle near the injection site… Fortunately the type and quantity of mercury I was exposed to poses no danger.”

By 11th grade Trotter was testing algae extracts from the Indian River Lagoon and the Antarctica for anti-cancer properties.  He even set up a temporary lab culture room at his house when the laboratory space where he worked was taken over by scientists preparing experiments to accompany a Columbia space shuttle flight.

“I needed to determine whether the extracts that I had prepared possessed the ability to slow down the division rate of leukemia cells,” he said. “Needless to say, my mom learned to avoid wondering what I was doing in the den.”

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Passion for neuroscience nurtured at USF

Trotter has spent the last five years at USF, where he says his passion for neuroscience was nurtured. He earned a bachelor of science degree in biomedical sciences here, followed by a master’s of science and PhD degrees in medical sciences, both with a concentration in neuroscience.

Along the way he has co-authored 15 journal articles with Dr. Weeber and/or other USF faculty members, including Lynn Martin, PhD, of the Department of Integrative Biology.  He was a member of an interdisciplinary team awarded a highly competitive 2012-13 USF Graduate Student Research Challenge Grant.  Dr. Weeber and Trotter also have a patent pending for a new therapeutic approach for treating brain injuries.

At the USF Health Byrd Alzheimer’s Institute, Trotter found in Dr. Weeber a mentor who shared his passion for delving into how synapses work with the hope that the research will lead to future treatments for Alzheimer’s disease or other cognitive disorders.

“I’ve really enjoyed the collaborative spirit at the Byrd Institute,” Trotter said.  “They’ve provided me with the resources and support needed to move forward in the development of my scientific career.”

And this USF graduate continues to move ahead — taking his place next month in the laboratory of a new Nobel Prize winner.  “It’s an amazing opportunity,” Trotter said.

- Photos by Eric Younghans, USF Health Communications