Biological and Biomedical Science: Jonathan Henninger

  • Accepted at:

    • Harvard
    • Johns Hopkins
    • National Institute of Health/Johns Hopkins
    • Carnegie Mellon University
    • Yale
    • University of Pittsburgh
    • University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
    • University of Pennsylvania

    Enrolled in:

    Harvard University with a medical sciences grant to obtain a Ph.D. in Developmental and Regenerative Biology from the Biological and Biomedical Sciences graduate program.

    Statement of Academic Purpose

    One of my favorite questions to ask someone during casual conversation usually elicits a puzzled look: why do we need to breathe? I vividly remember a lecture during a high school advanced biology course on the molecular nature of cellular respiration, and I specifically recall the exact moment when I grasped the molecular basis behind an organism’s need to breathe because a chill ran down my spine. To understand such a process that we normally consider mundane at the cellular level was, to put simply, deeply moving. Later, during my freshman year of college, I discovered the writings of Richard Feynman, a famous Nobel laureate in physics and a well-known writer on the philosophy of science. I engaged with these readings, cultivating both my appreciation for the beauty of nature and my development as a scientific thinker.

    I enrolled at Indiana University of Pennsylvania to pursue a degree in biochemistry, where I felt that I could unleash the chemist inside me on my broader and more pertinent interests in molecular and cell biology. As an undergraduate, I have worked in three different labs working on both prokaryotic and eukaryotic systems, eventually finding my niche in studying how the cell’s own processes drive regeneration of damaged or diseased tissue. During my sophomore and junior years, I conducted research in elucidating the molecular biology of a double-stranded RNA virus that infects Rhizoctonia solani, an economically important fungus, and its potential role as a model system for developing biosensor technology. This project, under the direction of Prof. N. Bharathan, was funded by an Army Research Office grant, and it introduced me to the exciting nature of working in a university-level research laboratory. After classes, I would often work late into the night, especially to experience the thrill of seeing results. Moreover, during this time I immersed myself in the scientific literature in order to see exciting avenues of research. During my search, I discovered the seminal paper on induced pluripotent stem cells by Dr. Shinya Yamanaka’s group. Concurrently, I was reading about the fields of tissue engineering and regenerative medicine, which led me to an interesting convergence, since the advent of autologous stem cells confers a remarkable potential to these fields. Due to my fascination with these fields, I decided that I needed to get involved in this type of research.

    After a year of working on the fungal virus and presenting my results at three conferences, I decided to direct my research focus towards the molecular biology of regeneration and tissue engineering in metazoan systems. I was fortunate enough to be selected for the competitive Wake Forest Institute for Regenerative Medicine (WFIRM) Summer Scholars Program, a research experience designed to immerse the student in the current techniques and topics of research in regenerative medicine and tissue engineering, during the summer following my junior year. While with WFIRM, I investigated the potential of induced pluripotent stem cells to differentiate to the functional motor neuron fate, culminating in the proper formation of neuromuscular junctions with myoblasts. This study was partially funded by a Dale Folwell Fellowship, and I conducted the research under the direction of Dr. Patricia Wilson. Throughout this experience, I found myself so enthralled by the project that I sometimes forgot to go home and worked through the night. I also volunteered to work on an additional project involving a model brain injury in rodents to examine the effects of encapsulated cells on the immune response. It was at WFIRM that I learned the importance of using basic research in developmental biology and applying it to a human problem.

    I am interested in tissue engineering, regeneration, and stem cell biology, as well as deepening my understanding of molecular and developmental biology in general. I find the interdisciplinary approach necessitated by these fields to be highly appealing. In addition, using the cell’s inherent regenerative processes in order to repair injured or diseased tissue has always fascinated me, and I believe that this is the key to helping people with a variety of disorders and injuries that are currently incurable. Since much of regeneration mirrors the process of development and makes use of endogenous stem cell populations, I am also greatly interested in studying the fundamental molecular and cellular processes governing the development and maintenance of tissue.

    Before arriving at a graduate program next fall, I will have the chance to continue research in planarian regeneration under the supervision of Prof. Robert Major. Specifically, I am investigating the interactions of the highly conserved Wnt signaling pathway and a protein implicated in aging, Sir2, in order to explore the molecular interface between injury and a regenerative response. The planarian is an interesting organism in that developmental and regenerative processes largely overlap, and, to me, this perfectly mirrors and encapsulates my broader research interests.

    With respect to my current research interests, I think that the Biological and Biomedical Sciences Program at Harvard is ideal for what I would like to study. I am particularly interested in the Harvard Stem Cell Institute and the work of Dr. Gregory, Dr. Hochedlinger, and Dr. Goessling with respect to studying the fundamental molecular processes in stem cells that govern pluripotency and regeneration. Of course, my interest in this program is also bolstered by Harvard’s excellence in biomedical research and collaboration, and I believe that I would obtain a firm foundation in these pioneering fields in order to apply my knowledge to a human problem with clinical need.

    Upon completing the graduate program, I hope to obtain a post-doctoral position at an institute specifically researching tissue engineering and regenerative medicine, such as the McGowan Institute in Pittsburgh or the Wake Forest Institute for Regenerative Medicine, with the aim of rapidly getting regenerative technologies to clinical trials. I then hope to obtain a faculty position at a research university to continue my study into regeneration and development and to promulgate my interests and the profundity of nature to students of my own.