This week we’re happy to welcome Nathaniel Snyder (@mzspectrum), Assistant Professor at Drexel University. His current work focuses on identifying and measuring modifiable risk factors for autism spectrum disorder (ASD). The long term goals of this work are to bridge population and individual level scientific approaches and develop a public health approach to prevention of ASD. Current research projects include studies of environmental exposures, metabolic pathways involved in neurodevelopment, and molecular mechanisms that may mediate ASD. Additional projects include fundamental work on improving sample collection and analysis, as well as refining epidemiological trial design using laboratory measurements. Nathaniel staffs the Exposure Science Lab at the Autism Institute. Aside from starting the lab, Nathaniel bought a house, got married, takes care of 2-3 dogs, a cat (that acts like a dog), all while writing grants, doing experiments, and learning how to manage and mentor. We asked Nathaniel the usual set of questions, and you can read his responses below.
I started working in a lab in high school because my wonderful public high school in Maryland (Eleanor Roosevelt High) had an internship program where we got to work in research labs around the area for the first half of our day. I studied raspberry/strawberry/blackberry genetics at the USDA Agricultural Research Service. I loved the calm lab environment and had the best mentors. Following that I went to University of Maryland College Park and studied Biochemistry. Again, I had great professors! I started working in a lab at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda over the summers and did some public health and health policy work as well. Again, I had the best mentors, so I really got engaged in pursuing science as a career. I went to the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, PA for a PhD program in Pharmacology. I got out in ~4.5 years, and finished a Masters in Public Health (MPH) program while being a postdoc. With a lot of luck, I was able to set up a lab a couple blocks away at Drexel University in the A.J. Drexel Autism institute. From the outside, it looks like a linear path that I somehow managed to plan and then execute, but in reality, I owe being able to do science as a career to a huge number of supportive people and a lot of luck.
I never imagined I would work on autism. It is still a new field for me, and frankly, it is a hard field to study because of the complexity, the interactions of autism with society, and the history. Yet, for so many reasons studying autism matters. The public health importance of autism has been tragically magnified by what happens when we know so little about a disorder that affects so many. I measure very small things using instruments that costs more than the house I live in. Since measurement is such a basic element of the scientific process, I get to work on many other interesting projects with other cool scientists. This part of my work spans from cancer and drug metabolism, to neuropharmacology, and to the function of the heart. This collaboration is my favorite part of the job. When I get to help other scientists, it feels great. I’m helping people help people! Research into metabolism has a huge positive impact on public health. Many diseases either are caused by or cause altered metabolism and so a huge number of diseases are cured or lessened by interventions that target metabolism. Newborns are screened for errors in metabolism at birth, preventing deadly and life-altering diseases. Drugs, pesticides and some other chemicals are studied for how they are metabolized to prevent public health catastrophes. So much of this work just happens in the background, where it is not talked about or over-hyped, but it quietly saves and improves lives.
The lay public should really care about autism research. We should care because of what fills the void of our ignorance and because 1-2% of a population is a lot of humans that deserve as full of a life as they can have. So, we should care not just about looking for factors that cause autism, but also about how to diagnose, treat, and provide the best life course outcomes for people with autism. There is a huge benefit to be had through early detection and effective intervention. Critically to the people most affected (and their families) we need to understand and provide the tools to policymakers, care-takers, and clinicians that maximize evidence based interventions and programs.
I have 2 dogs, a cat, a new house and an incredible wife. The dogs and cat will assuredly make a few appearances on the twitter. I play way to many board games and video games, but if I had time, I would play even more. I also play ultimate frisbee, volleyball, read prolifically and play all sorts of games. I used to play bass, but haven’t really had the time to for a few years now. I do a wicked karaoke of Alanis Morisette’s “You Oughta Know.” I am a habitual watcher of the PBS NewsHour.
Days off? What? Kidding, please take days off for mental health (and not just yours, but the mental health of everyone around you).
A perfect day off is a sunny 80 degree Sunday, started by 2 cups of dark roast coffee, a newspaper with a cat sitting on my lap, a 20 minute walk with the dogs, 1-2 light errands, a easy gym day, lunch with a nice IPA, about 2 hours of frisbee or volleyball, a shower, a nap, 1 hr of video games, trip to the dog park, return adorable puppy that I accidentally walked away with from other person at the dog park, dinner, clean up dishes, one episode of Game of Thrones, reading, then bed.
Please welcome Nathaniel to Real Scientists!