Shulman wins top graduate school honor

While graduate student Andrew Shulman's research brings in praise from the scientific community, his abilities bring out superlatives from some of UT Southwestern's top investigators.

"Andy is probably the smartest student I've ever had," said Dr. David Mangelsdorf, professor of pharmacology and biochemistry, a Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator and one of Mr. Shulman's mentors. "He's not the type of researcher that has to do a lot of experiments, because he does the right experiments."

As a result Mr. Shulman, a student in the Medical Scientist Training Program currently studying cell regulation, has won the Nominata Award, the graduate school's top honor.

Southwestern Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences officials presented him with the Nominata's $2,000 cash prize and asked him to deliver this year's Nominata Lecture on his scientific work.

Mr. Shulman's research prowess has resulted in a highly acclaimed study, published in the journal Cell, that not only sheds light on some basic questions of biology, but also has implications for novel drug development. The proteins he focuses on are the targets of about 10 percent of the 100 most prescribed drugs.

"My work would not have been possible without the support and encouragement of two great mentors, Dr. David Mangelsdorf and Dr. Rama Ranganathan, and an outstanding group of colleagues," Mr. Shulman said. "This award reflects the excellence of the environment that I have been privileged to work in."

A career in science might have eluded Mr. Shulman, considering advice he received from a person most regard as a font of wisdom: Mom.

"Although my mom insisted that my best talents were in the humanities, my curiosity and the almost gentle influence of my engineer dad drew me to science," Mr. Shulman said.

A summer spent as a teen-age researcher at his hometown hospital in suburban Philadelphia - the hospital where he was born - also shaped his future.

"My experiences there gave me a chance to see that science is an intensely human process and not the static world of facts presented by textbooks," he said. "The idea that scientists can create knowledge appealed to me."

Mr. Shulman graduated magna cum laude from Harvard College with a bachelor's degree in biochemical sciences. He came to UT Southwestern in 1999 as a fellow in the Medical Scientist Training Program, where students earn both an M.D. and Ph.D. After completing two years of medical school, he joined Dr. Mangelsdorf's lab for the graduate school portion of his training.

Mr. Shulman's research focuses on how proteins communicate and function within the body. Receptors on proteins have the ability to coordinate events occurring at widely separated sites along their 3-D shape, like two dimples on a golf ball "communicating" with one another. Determining how one receptor on a protein "knows" what its distant partner is doing - which hormone it is binding to, for example - is a fundamental question in biology. A better understanding of the mechanism could help improve the efficacy of certain drug treatments, Mr. Shulman said.

Dr. Ranganathan, associate professor of pharmacology and a Howard Hughes Institute investigator at UT Southwestern, developed a novel computer-based technique that identifies which parts of a protein are likely to create the link that joins distant functional receptors. Mr. Shulman teamed up with his two mentors and devised a set of experiments that led to Mr. Shulman's discovery of the elusive pathway through which different sites on a certain kind of protein signal one another.

"These experiments were not trivial, and required making hundreds of receptor mutants and then testing them in several different types of assays, and under several different conditions," Dr. Mangelsdorf said. "The experiments alone were a tour de force."

Mr. Shulman spent considerable time in the labs of both his mentors.

"He's done a beautiful piece of work," said Dr. Michael Brown, professor of molecular genetics and Nobel laureate who serves as faculty director of the M.D./Ph.D. program. He's also a member of Mr. Shulman's thesis committee.

"He was able to get two of our outstanding scientists, Dr. Ranganathan and Dr. Mangelsdorf, to forge a collaboration. It's a beautiful story."

Dr. Ranganathan said, "Andy is an excellent young scientist with considerable ability in both computational and experimental biology. He integrates both areas in attacking tough biological problems and truly understands the value of a multi-disciplinary research program."

After defending his dissertation, Mr. Shulman said he would "dust off my white coat" and start clinical clerkships as a third-year medical student in July.

"Working on the wards will be a big change from the lab, and I am both excited and a bit intimidated by a new set of challenges," he said.

"Our M.D./Ph.D. program aims to give us the experience needed to identify important unanswered questions in clinical medicine and the basic science tools to address those questions in the lab. In the future I hope to follow the example of my mentors here at UT Southwestern and pursue a career in academic medicine."

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Media contact: Amanda Siegfried
214-648-3404
amanda.siegfried@utsouthwestern.edu

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