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Staff Spotlight: Joe Delaney, PhD

Thursday, March 29, 2018

While researching the intricate processes of neurodegeneration that take place at the cellular level, Joe Delaney, PhD, keeps one concrete  goal in mind--to cure disease. In this week’s Spotlight interview, Delaney talks to us about his work as part of the lab of Al La Spada, MD, PhD, his fascination with recent discoveries in biology--including immortal, tentacled hydra living in our lakes and rivers, mice with Wolverine-like healing abilities, and human redesigns of the genetic code--and the difficulties of “coming down to earth” after particularly engrossing brainstorming sessions.

What are your responsibilities within the Neurology Department?
To cure disease! As a post-doctoral fellow, my mind is always on science and research. My career has been built on longevity and cancer research, but now I also perform neurodegeneration research. Nature and biology are strange creatures; the same protein which causes neurodegeneration can also cause cancer, given different contexts. I focus my attention on these shared factors so I can best benefit both neurodegeneration and cancer research.

What does your average work day look like?
I’m up at sunrise and tend to open up the lab and get the machines running early. I find some clarity on getting the most important tasks of the day done before my mind is cluttered by the onslaught of emails and meetings throughout the day. Most of the time in lab you’ll find me holding a pipette and transferring miniscule amounts of liquid from one container to the next. Some of my favorite moments are when I get to see a couple weeks’ worth of work come to fruition with vibrant colors under a microscope. Between pairs of gloves, I’m typically reading, writing, or programming in lab or off-site, if I’m not enjoying a chat with a trainee. Whenever I need a break, everyone around knows I’ll be reaching for some fresh ground coffee.

How did you first get interested in cell biology? What’s the most exciting advance in the field that you’ve seen since you started studying the field?
Given how much I define myself in terms of my research (I eat one meal a day, due to my PhD research), it’s hard to believe I ever thought about other directions in science. But I remember when I was first choosing a research lab in my undergraduate days it was a 50/50 choice between a cell biology lab and a lab which studied how water acted funny in nanometer scale environments. Now, I can’t imagine studying anything that didn’t directly relate to human biology, thanks to my choice of the molecular biology lab which studied acid secretion in stomach cells.

The most exciting advances I have seen are not necessarily new molecules or genes which were discovered, but merely observations that may completely change the way we look at biology. Did you know there are organisms that do not age (the hydra)? Or that a volunteer researcher was simply marking mouse ears, and stumbled upon a mouse which could heal without scarring? Or that we can design a bacteria which can use a genetic code foreign to what nature has ever done in billions of years? While neurodegeneration and cancer are both incredibly complex, these stories give me hope that we will figure out how to solve these problems, because the answers likely already exist somewhere.

If you could have any job in the world, what would it be?
Well, I’m a nerd, so I will be the first to admit I am blessed to be able to do the job I do today and research some really neat models. If I could change it around and create a non-existent job, I would direct a research institute where researchers could pursue fundamental questions of biology for 50+ years without having to worry about grants. Basically, I’d help run a nerd playground.

What do you enjoy most about your job? What’s the hardest part of your work?
The amazing people around me. At Duke and my previous institutions, the most memorable part of any work day is a brainstorming session with lab members, tackling problems many outside of cell biology have never even heard of. The hardest part is coming back down to Earth.

You came to Duke from the University of California almost eight months ago. What do you miss the most about the West Coast?
Of course, the people who are now 2,700 miles away are heavily missed. But I remember when I first visited Duke, someone mentioned they couldn’t remember the last time they saw the horizon. Now I can’t help but long for the blazing orange ocean sunsets framed with speckled pink clouds I have lived with my whole life. The flashes of cardinals catching the sunrise will do fine, though.

What passions or hobbies do you have outside of the Department?
I don’t mind admitting my love for science and how I continue it off-campus. But on days of irresistible weather, my wife and I find excuses to find new places to walk, hike, bike, or otherwise explore. This can either take us to a little-known taco truck in an empty parking lot or halfway across the world to Italy. Sometimes I combine some foodie tasting with the hiking – try munching on some claytonia perfoliata if you can find it outdoors (the circular ring just below the main flower is edible), it’s my favorite leafy green!

J Delaney
Delaney during a visit to Asheville last fall. "The color changes are a sight unseen on the west coast, and my wife and I were thrilled to see whole forests going through the process," Delaney said.