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Townsend Smith - Student Profile

Townsend Smith

Molecular Metabolism & Metabolic Diseases Track

Mentor: Russell DeBose-Boyd, Ph.D.
Undergraduate Degree: Biological Sciences
Undergraduate Institution: Wright State University
Hometown: Dayton, OH
Awards/Fellowships: Mechanisms of Disease and Translational Science Track's T32 training program (2021); Biochemistry Department's Chemistry-Biology Interface (CBI) T32 training program (2022)

Townsend Smith

What year did you matriculate into the graduate school at UTSW?


How did you become interested in science and/or research specifically?

Throughout my childhood and adolescence, I was always interested in understanding how and why things worked. This led to my development of a strong interest in science and history. Unlike history, the field of science is much more amenable to the rigorous testing your hypotheses, and this tipped the scales in favor science for me. As a high school junior, I participated in the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases’ Short-Term Education Program for Underrepresented Persons (STEP-UP) program. The STEP-UP program gave me the opportunity to spend the summer working in the laboratory of Dr. Michael P. Markey at Wright State University working on a project seeking to identifying novel genomic biomarkers of melanoma that could be used to aid in the earlier detection of melanoma. It was during this first research experience that I became hooked on the thrill of discovery and going forward I knew that I wanted to become a scientist and contribute to our understanding of human disease and physiology.

Tell us about your research project and its relevance to human health (if any).

My research in Dr. Russell DeBose-Boyd’s laboratory is centered on how our bodies regulate the production of cholesterol and the largely unknown role of the UBIAD1 protein in modulating this process. UBIAD1 is a prenyltransferase that catalyzes the production of the vitamin K2 subtype, menaquinone-4 (MK-4), and negatively regulates the ER-associated degradation (ERAD) of HMG CoA reductase, the rate-limiting enzyme of cholesterol synthesis and target of statin drugs. The induced whole-body knockout of UBIAD1 in adult mice is lethal and characterized in part by a striking decrease in the size of the pancreas. My research aims to investigate the contributions of UBIAD1-mediated inhibition of ERAD and synthesis of MK-4 to pancreatic subsistence and whole-body physiology.

Why did you choose to come to UTSW for graduate school?

I chose to come to UT Southwestern because of its stellar track record in applying basic science in a clinically relevant manner. These investigations have led to fundamental discoveries that have changed the face of modern medicine. The elucidation of mechanisms governing the feedback control of cholesterol synthesis and the discovery of the LDL receptor by Drs Michael Brown and Joseph Goldstein serves as the archetype of the type of research that has become emblematic of UT Southwestern.

In your opinion, what makes your specific program one of the top in the country?

I believe that what makes the Metabolism and Metabolic Disease (3MD) Track unique amongst similar programs is its capitalization on the breadth and depth of research being conducted in the laboratories at UT Southwestern. A perfect example of this is the Metabolism Masterclass series in which a faculty member gives a talk centered on a key paper in their career. The speaker recounts the hurdles they had to overcome to complete that particular project and the lessons they learned along the way. At the conclusion of each masterclass a closed-door Q&A session occurs with only the speaker and trainees to allow the trainees and speaker to have a space in which they can freely ask questions and receive guidance. This level of trainee-faculty interaction serves as a testament to the program and faculty members’ devotion to not only carrying out their research but in mentoring trainees and fostering a collaborative environment.

What do you love about your program or why should a prospective student decide to get their Ph.D. here?

What I love most about the 3MD program is the spirit of collaboration that is readily evident in interactions between students and faculty. An example of this spirit of collaboration is the Manifestations and Pathogenesis of Metabolic Disease course in which combines lectures from leading physicians and scientists to teach students about clinical manifestations of a disease and the underpinning biological mechanisms and ongoing research in the field.

– Townsend SmithMolecular Metabolism & Metabolic Diseases Track and Biological Chemistry Graduate Program