Researcher—and Mentor

The nitty-gritty work of scientific research, for all its wonders, can seem far removed from the people it’s meant to benefit. But for geneticist Linda Brzustowicz, the cells studied in her lab represent real people, with real medical issues—in particular, schizophrenia and autism.

“I think about the patients,” says Brzustowicz, who graduated from medical school and is trained as a psychiatrist. “I don’t think about the cells in a dish. To me, those cells came from someone who is suffering with that disease.”

AUTISM AND SCHIZOPHRENIA

Brzustowicz’s research seeks to identify the genetic roots of autism and schizophrenia. Significant discoveries from her work, published in the American Journal of Psychiatry, the American Journal of Human Genetics, and other leading scientific journals, hold promise for finding potential drug treatments for these conditions.

  • Investigations into a gene, NOS1AP, indicate that a specific DNA change is likely to increase the risk for developing schizophrenia.
  • Studies of families with autism demonstrate a link between autism and ENGRAILED 2, a gene important in central nervous system development.

Collaboration is essential to her research, and her projects involve other researchers at Rutgers, as well as at Robert Wood Johnson Medical School. “One of the things that’s really great about Rutgers is that we have such a rich neuroscience community here,” she says. “We work together so we can all do better, and I think that’s the kind of philosophy that pervades the campus in general, certainly in the neuroscience and genetic communities.”

FOSTERING UNDERGRADUATE RESEARCH

It also extends to her work with students, including undergraduates. As chair of the Department of Genetics in the School of Arts and Sciences at Rutgers–New Brunswick, Brzustowicz is devoted to instilling her love of research in undergraduates. We spoke with Brzustowicz about undergraduate research.

In your department, how involved can undergraduates get in research? Do they actually work in the labs?
We make genuine research a cornerstone of the educational experience. We really start encouraging students as early as their first year to start getting involved in labs.

What do students get out of this experience?
It’s so different seeing and doing this firsthand, as opposed to just reading about it in a book. Depending on the students’ abilities and motivations, they can get very involved in projects. It’s a range of experiences, from trying it out and saying, “Oh, this was fun, I’m glad I learned it, but it’s not for me,” to people who really get into it and end up as coauthors on papers or doing an honors thesis.

How can this change their college experience—or careers?
I don’t want to sound overly dramatic, but some students really have life-changing experiences.

What’s an example of that?
One of my students thought he was going to be a genetic counselor, and after being in my lab for a while decided that he wanted to go to medical school. Then, after being in my lab a little longer, he decided he didn’t want to go to med school—he really liked doing research—and that he wanted to get a Ph.D. He ended up staying with me as a graduate student. And if he didn’t have the opportunity to get into a lab, and see how good he was at research and how much he enjoyed it, he probably would have gone off and done something else with his life.

You’re a board-certified psychiatrist with an active medical license, but you’re not at a medical school—a common destination for a researcher with your background. What drew you to Rutgers?
I had job offers at medical schools, but I really liked the idea of coming to a school of arts and sciences, and one of the things I really liked about it was the chance to work with undergraduates. At Rutgers, I see a lot of undergraduates, especially as chair of the department.