Training the Brain to Survive Stroke – Jeff Dunn Joins RealScientists!

dunn photoMoving from one hemisphere to another, RealScientists leaves Auckland, New Zealand to head to Calgary, Canada to meet imaginer Dr. Jeff Dunn/@jeffreyfdunn, our curator for this week. Jeff is a Professor in the Department of Radiology, University of Calgary (Canada).

Having studied zoology and biochemistry, Jeff started working on metabolism and adaption, and then moved to imaging and histology. His current work focuses on brain studies including multiple sclerosis, stroke and concussion. Giving in to a little bit of pestering from us, Jeff told us how he became the MRI guy, in his answers to our introduction survey.



Why/How did you end up in science?

I wanted to be a scientist from as early as I can remember. I was always watching nature shows and browsing National Geographic. My role models were Jacques Cousteau and Carl Sagan. I worked as a guide at the Vancouver Aquarium during my undergraduate time, gaining experience in communication, fish biology and working with marine mammals. I was planning to take a year off from University when I completed my BSc. I recall an incident clearly, at the end of my 4th year which sent me onto this path. I was collecting some mail in the Zoology office (I was doing an honours in Zoology). I bumped into a Prof who taught the 4th year comparative biochemistry course that I just completed. I asked how I did, he said I was the top in the class, I asked if I could do a PhD with him, he said yes…. My year off vanished and the rest is history. That was the turning point when I took a leap that defined the rest of my life. The Prof. was Peter Hochachka who wrote the book on comparative biochemistry and hypoxia adaptation. I did my PhD with Peter at the University of British Columbia.

Why did you choose your current field/what keeps you there?

My research career did not take a linear path. I wonder how many do? I was planning to work in a University, in a zoology or biochemistry department, studying fish biology and how species adapted to their environment. This took me to my first Post-Doc position at St. Andrews University in Scotland where I worked with Dr. Ian Johnson on the metabolism of cold temperature fish. This project took me to the Antarctic with the British Antarctic Survey to study low temperature biology. After my stint with Ian, I was planning to move back to Canada. The best I could do was a 1 year temporary position at Mt. Alison University. It was a good opportunity in that I would have been able to work with Dr. Driedzic, who was a world expert in comparative cardiac metabolism—but it was temporary. At the same time I was given the opportunity to go to Oxford to work with Dr. (now Sir) George Radda. His group was pioneering the use of NMR to study metabolism and he wanted a metabolic biochemist to work with his physicists. That led to me working in Biochemistry and the Medical Research Council in Oxford for over 5 years. People began to think of me as an “MRI” guy. That led to me being hired on tenure track by Dartmouth Medical School to set up and direct an experimental MRI research lab. The position at Dartmouth defined what is now my career-supervising an MRI research lab, with strengths in animal model research, to study a range of diseases.

I stay in this work because I love it. Dr. Obenaus at Loma Linda told me only a few weeks ago that science is the best job in the world if you have money. If you don’t have money to do your work, it is the worst job. I’ve been fortunate and so I’m still here!

EIC portraitTell us about your work?

I use imaging and histology to study disease progression and treatment responses. My focus is on brain but I’ve worked on muscle, heart, liver, kidney and cartilage in studies that include multiple sclerosis, stroke, concussion and arthritis. I am an expert in how tissues survive and adapt to low oxygen (hypoxia) and so I do a lot of work studying how brain responds to hypoxia as well as how oxygen is regulated in brain. I develop new methods to quantify hypoxia and oxygenation and then apply them to determine how oxygen impacts the progression of disease. Most of my work is on animal models of disease. In the past few years, we have also been translating some of our imaging methods into patient care. For example, I have a project using functional near-infrared spectroscopy (NIRS) to study patterns of brain oxygenation after concussion as a marker of injury. I’ve also been using MRI and NIRS to study hypoxia in multiple sclerosis. One of my coolest paper titles, if I do say so myself, was published as open access in PLoS called “Training the brain to survive stroke”. This work called on my years of research on how tissues adapt to hypoxia to prove that a brain, once adapted to low oxygen, did indeed survive stroke better than your average brain.

Motivation: why should the lay public care about your research/work?

There are always two lines of research in my work. One is technique development. In this area I’m working on using MRI and other novel methods such as near-infrared spectroscopy, to study brain function and health. I find people have a high level of interest in understanding imaging methods and what those methods can do for the patient. The second line is studying the metabolic and physiological changes that occur with a disease. My grounding in metabolism allows me to comment meaningfully on many disorders. If you think about it, everyone on the planet will probably be impacted by hypoxia at some point, as it relates to disease progression in stroke, cancer, birth asphyxia, ADHD, mild and traumatic brain injury, Alzheimer’s, Multiple Sclerosis, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, burn and wound healing, inflammation etc etc as well as during situations such as high altitude trekking and during anesthesia. Who wouldn’t be interested!! Did I leave anyone out?

DSC_0517Do you have any interesting external/extracurricular obligations?

I don’t get out much :-), I seem to be applying for grants all the time. I do talks on concussion for sports groups. I’m working on increasing the engagement of non-scientists into aspects of research in order to improve the understanding of how science can benefit society.

Any interesting hobbies you’d like to share?

I follow my 2 boys and their sports hobbies. This includes a lot of volleyball and ski-cross. Zone’s volleyball championships just finished and in 3 weeks I will be volunteering at the first World Cup Ski cross race of this season—at Nakiska in Alberta. I bagpipe—ok I did piping when I had more time and I hope to again soon!

How would you describe your ideal day off? 

In the summer, I’d like to spend the day walking in the mountains. In the winter, I’d love to ski a nice resort, ending with a meal and wine with friends. Or..hmm—end with a pub meal and good beer (tough one). If I can’t get out to do that, I would be content watching “Lord of the Rings” and playing with our bulldog.

We’re delighted to welcome Jeff Dunn to RealScientists!'

Sarah Morgan

I'm a Research Fellow at the University of Auckland, New Zealand. I work in the meld space between compulsory education and tertiary scientific research; we develop teaching modules using the real research stories around us in the Developmental Origins of Health and Disease field. Engagement is the name of the game - creating opportunities for teachers, students and scientists to interact, and enrich learning on all sides. Scicomm is my passion, though I come from a molecular genetics research background.

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