UMDNJ Brainiac: Jonathan Wooden
words by Mary Ann Littell / photograph by Andrew Hanenberg
lifelong fascination with the human body led Jonathan Wooden to medical school and to the lab of Kathleen Scotto, PhD, vice president for research at UMDNJ. “With all the complexities of the body, so many things can go wrong,” he muses. “And yet, most of us are healthy. It’s remarkable when you think about it.”
As a biological science student at Rutgers, Wooden weighed his career options. Would he go into research or clinical care? He learned about the CURE — Continuing Umbrella for Research Experience — Program for minority students. “This amazing program puts undergraduates in a lab at The Cancer Institute of New Jersey (CINJ),” he explains. “You work alongside researchers for two years. At the end of each year you write a status report, a paper in the format of a scientific journal, about what you’re doing. When you’re finished, you present your work to the CINJ researchers.”
He was lucky enough to land in Scotto’s laboratory at CINJ. “I’ve learned so much from her,” he says.
After graduating, Wooden entered Robert Wood Johnson Medical School, where he was one of 10 exceptional students named Dean’s Scholars, receiving a four-year scholarship. As a first year student, he continued assisting with research in Scotto’s lab. One project examined MDR-1, a multi-drug resistant protein responsible for resistance to different drugs. Another MDR-1 project studied PARP (poly ADP-ribose polymerase), a protein involved in DNA repair. “Cancer cells are treated with certain drugs that induce DNA damage,” he explains. “PARP will repair that DNA damage.” He has also learned techniques to convert RNA to DNA in cells so cellular activity can be more easily visualized. Last summer, he assisted with a study using caffeine as a tool to induce the splice variant of the KLF6 gene and determine the pathway of this induction.
“Jonathan thinks like a researcher, questioning things right from the beginning,” says Scotto. “He’s a quick study and doesn’t learn by rote, but intuitively understands information and is able to apply what he learns. That’s why I think he’d make a wonderful researcher. On the other hand, he’s also personable and enthusiastic, qualities that are important in a clinician.”
Right now, Jonathan has taken some time off from the lab to focus on his schoolwork. “I’m still not sure whether I want to pursue research or clinical care. I enjoy being in the lab, but I also love talking with patients and trying to solve the puzzle of what’s wrong with them.” He’s wearing a shirt, tie and highly polished shoes rather than typical ‘grungy’ med student attire because Patient Centered Medicine, the class he’s taking on patient interactions, meets today.
Among the specialties he’s considering are surgery, cardiology and internal medicine. He’s spent time shadowing residents at Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital. “In the third year we start our rotations, and I want to keep all my options open,” he says.
“Whatever he decides to do, I have no doubt he’ll be very good at it,” says Scotto.