Spinal Cord Injury Research with the Gensel Lab - Podcast Transcript


Have you ever wondered who was doing the research that will impact your future? The research podcast lets you met those people, and learn how the University of Kentucky is exploring and strengthening our understanding of the world through research and discovery. 

Here's Alicia Gregory, director of Research Communications. 


Alicia: Today we’ll met physiologist John Gensel and his lab team members; Bei Zhang and Taylor Otto. They tell us how they ended up at UK and talk about their research on inflammation after spinal cord injury.


Gensel: My name is John Gensel, I’m an assistant professor here at the University of Kentucky. I’m in the Departments of Physiology and also in the Spinal Cord and Brain Injury Research Center. And I am the PI for a lab that studies spinal cord injury called Neuro-Inflammation Endogenous Repair, oh yeah, or the Neuro Lab, so…


Gensel: I grew up in a western Maine. I went to school, trying to get out of the woods a little bit, in Philadelphia at the University of Pennsylvania for undergrad. And a sort of had my trek across the United States. Went to Ohio State for graduate school, and stayed there for a postdoc. Actually became faculty there for a short time before my route across the United States kind of changed a little bit, and I went down to Kentucky and I’ve been here for about four years now.


Gensel: So I started out as an engineer. That really just didn’t work for me. I don’t think I would have been able to finish if I stayed there, you know. I switched into to a more or less neuroscience degree. It was called the Biological Basis of Behavior. And I was still on the pre-med track, and I remember meeting with some students when I was a junior, and they said you should really do some research. It’s good for your, you know, it’s good for your CV if you’re going to go to med school. And I contacted a bunch of professors there and one, Tracy McIntosh, was willing to take me on as an undergrad, and I started getting my own projects and stuff. And that’s really where, that's really where the switch happened. That research experience that I got as an undergraduate completely changed my perspective, and you know, I really didn’t consider med school again.


Zhang: My name is Bei Zhang, I’m working at Dr. John Gensel’s lab located at Spinal Cord Brain Injury Research Center at University of Kentucky. And my position now is research scientist one.


Zhang: I’m originally from China, and I came to Lexington, Kentucky for my Ph.D. study in 2007. And I finished my Ph.D. in 2013, and continued my postdoc training, also at University of Kentucky, but changed lab.


Zhang: The person who inspired me into science, is Dr. Michael Tobaric. The first project was really smooth and we had one paper published in that year. And he sort of think I’m a good student and I also love working in his lab, so I decided to continue my Ph.D. study in his lab.


Zhang: Dr. Gensel is easy going and always encourages me its—he also challenges me, but it’s just always in a positive way. I’m not the student right now, I’m a postdoc or a research scientist right now, so it’s more like we brainstorm very often and come out with good ideas. He kind of led me to a path more like an independent researcher, because I told him I want to have my own lab in the future. But basically, if I have experiment, like yesterday, like whole day long, I probably won’t do much reading, but if it’s not planned for like eight-hour experiment a day, I will do like reading first in the morning, and then start my experiment around noon time. Then do some data analysis in the afternoon.


Zhang: The most challenging is when you don’t have a good question. One thing I learned from Dr. Gensel is that you always need to ask question, and good question. And this question can then lead you to generate your hypothesis. And then to prove your hypothesis, you want to conduct a series of experiments, and then tell you—or tell the field, that if you’re right or not. So I think idea and asking good questions are the most challenging thing.


Otto: My name is Taylor Otto, I’m with the Gensel Lab, and I’m an undergraduate lab technician. I currently go to college at University of Kentucky. My major is human health sciences. I grew in Texas and then I moved to Chicago when I was in fifth grade. My mom is a pharmacist, so she had a lot do with the science field.


Otto: What really inspired me to be a scientist was I actually went a trip to India last summer, and I was helping in the Mother Teresa homes there, and I got to see a lot of kids with lots of birth defects and diseases that I know can be cured here in the states just like with a, not a simple surgery, but just with a surgery. And, that just really inspired to me to want to become a physician so I can help kids like them and really like dive into the sciences in that way.


Otto:  I like learning new things about, like, the information that I’m currently looking at, and like, applying it what I’ve learned in school. Because, I’ve learned a lot of this stuff, but it’s cool to actually see it take course in the research lab.


The most challenging is probably the same thing; in the fact that I am trying to apply what I’m learning into a way that I’m actually using it with my hands, and so sometimes it’s hard to make those connections and like stay on top of it, but it’s also my favorite part and the most challenging part.


Gensel: My lab is in the stage were we’re still early, you know we don’t have a lot of really senior people that have been in lab for decades, and so we’re bringing in people. We have graduate students and undergraduates, and so how do I, as the mentor of this lab, balance the nurturing environment to give them the ability to fail and learn, while also you know providing them with the guidance that they need to complete their projects but not micromanaging them. So those are some of the biggest challenges I think.


Gensel: The overall goal of the lab is really to try to figure out how to harness the reparative capabilities of inflammation in the context of spinal cord injury. So you know, a spinal cord injury is like any injury received, there’s an inflammatory response. If you get a skin wound there’s redness and inflammation. And over time, in a skin wound, let’s say that repairs itself in a certain way and then the inflammation goes away.  That doesn’t happen in a spinal cord injury or most neurotrauma. That inflammation remains. So there are certain aspects of that inflammatory response that can facilitate repair, and certain aspects that potentiate pathology. And so our goal is to really found out what physiological factors regulate the reparative or pathological balance, how does sex and age at the time of injury affect those things, and how can we gain insights into developing therapies for that. So, the overall goal is to improve the lives of individuals with a spinal cord injury, and we use basic science models to study inflammation and to develop therapies that we can translate into a clinical population.


Gensel: Broader questions, you know down the road; 10, 15, 20 years from now, you know our hope is really to—to understand the biological mechanisms that regulate beneficial inflammatory repair processes. And be able to tap in those with therapeutics that will be applied across a variety of neurological diseases.


Zhang: I didn’t work at this field when I was a Ph.D. student, but when I started working here, I realized that how devastating that patient got injury. Because they’re unable to walk, or even worse. Like they probably have to lay in bed for the rest of their whole life. There’s a private foundation called Wings for Life and their website it says spinal cord injury should be cured. I think it’s a big goal, but if every day we can work at our research project in generating different thoughts and prove our hypothesis, we can make contribution to cure spinal cord injury.


Otto: I think UK is a good place to do science because I think we offer a lot here, that’s one of the reasons I chose UK, it’s because I was able to come here—and whether… decide whether I wanted to do like PT, Pre-A, Pre-Pre-A, Pre-Med, and all these things. And we have it all here, and it’s a good program to be able to come into; not really knowing what you want to exactly do in the science field, but be able to figure it out at the same time. 


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