MD/PhD student Ryan O’Dell was uniquely qualified to tackle the research project that recently made the cover of the Journal of Neuroscience.
“Fortunately, Ryan is very sharp and determined,” said his mentor at Upstate, Eric Olson, PhD. “Also, being an ultramarathoner, he has an incredibly high pain threshold. He never let setbacks or a cranky advisor get him down, and was always game to give something a try regardless of the difficulty.”
Ryan successfully defended his dissertation this year, was first author of the Journal of Neuroscience article and has resumed the medical school phase of the MD/PhD program. He’s rotating through his third-year clerkships and is on track to graduate in 2017.
The research he did in embryonic brain development will enable the Olson lab — and other researchers — to delve deeper and contribute to a greater understanding of serious neurological disorders.
Using multiphoton microscopy and a mouse model, Ryan essentially made movies showing the cellular dynamics that occur during the initial phase of the growth of dendrites, a major component of brain circuitry. This was a first among researchers, said Olson, associate professor of neuroscience and physiology.
Ryan was able to highlight the role of a gene, Reelin, and add new information to earlier studies that looked at how Reelin deficiencies contributed to “disruptions” at two different stages of brain development.
“As disruptions in the Reelin signaling pathway have been previously implicated as contributors to Alzheimer’s disease, autism spectrum disorders and schizophrenia,” Ryan said, “our work may eventually lead to novel insights into the specific pathophysiology of these complex disorders.”
Ryan succeeded with “a difficult project with a number of technical challenges,” according to Olson. “He was a joy to have in the lab and he has a very bright future as a clinician scientist.”
Ryan said the Olson lab in the Neuroscience Research Building is an excellent learning environment, with students genuinely interested in and supportive of each other’s work.
“Eric would always make time to discuss new and interesting data, and offer guidance wherever necessary,” he said. “He was always excited to review data, and was oftentimes seen in the lab conducting experiments and getting his own hands dirty.”
Olson is “an exemplary role model, demonstrating a great passion for scientific research and curiosity (and at the same time a critical and scrutinizing eye), something essential to pass down to the new generations of budding investigators,” Ryan said.
After he graduates from Upstate, Ryan plans to pursue a career in neurology so he can “help fill in the missing pieces of disease pathophysiology that will ultimately lead to definitive cures (or at the very least better screening methodologies) for many of the debilitating neurological disorders,” he said.
In the meantime, Ryan hopes to find time for another passion – running ultramarathons (distances greater than 26.2 miles) even though he hasn’t been running much since his clerkships started.
“I was able to finish one last 100-mile race in March after defending (my dissertation), out in the desert of Monument Valley,” he said. “An absolutely amazing and sandy experience, followed by 10 days of hiking and running around Zion National Park, Bryce Canyon and the Grand Canyon.”
Ryan hopes to ramp up the miles during his fourth year of medical school. There’s another goal out there that will test his high pain tolerance.
“I need to return to the Massanutten 100-mile race in the Shenandoah Mountains of Virginia,” he said. It will be his fifth 100-mile ultra and he’ll earn a coveted 500-mile belt buckle.