GMS PhD Spotlight: Todd Dowrey (MTM)

Todd Dowrey is a PhD candidate in the Molecular and Translational Medicine Department who matriculated into the Program in Biomedical Sciences (PiBS) in 2020. His current research in the lab of Associate Professor of Medicine George Murphy, PhD, studies healthy aging and longevity. As part of his work, Todd collaborates with aging-focused researchers on campus like Professor of Medicine Tom Perls, MD, MPH, FACP, the founding director of the New England Centenarian Study. Todd’s work in the Murphy Lab was recently highlighted in an article by The Brink. Read our interview with Todd below! 

Tell me a bit about your educational and professional journey to Boston University.

The UMass Lowell Fish Lab

I grew up a little bit north of the Boston area in Chelmsford, Massachusetts. I decided to attend my local state school, UMass Lowell, and that’s where I did my bachelor’s degree in biology. During my time there. I got involved in research on campus there with [Associate Professor] Dr. Jennifer Fish, who gave me my start in scientific research.

I was in the Honors College at UMass Lowell. They give you an older honors college mentor. That student was working in the Center for Regenerative Medicine (CReM), which is where I work now. Toward the end of my time at UMass Lowell, he reached out to my lab asking if anyone was looking for jobs. I ended up getting in contact with him, learning more about the CReM, and getting to know what that opportunity looked like. That’s how I ended up coming to BU to work as a lab technician for [Associate Professor of Medicine George Murphy, PhD], who is my current PI.

Did you always know you wanted to do scientific research?

Growing up, I always enjoyed different kinds of puzzles, figuring things out, and using a trial-and-error method to arrive at a solution. That’s where getting exposure to scientific research at UMass Lowell and the Fish Lab showed me that I could apply those sorts of skills with scientific research. Getting involved in the lab and getting exposed to what scientific research is like lit a fire in me and steered me toward continuing down the research path.

My mom has actually worked for a number of years in the biotech field. When I was in high school, I attended a week-long research experience at the company where she was working. That was my first exposure to what a lab even looked like. We were immersed in a week-long experiment and really got to see what that process is like. That was a life-altering experience, as it started me down the research path.

The BU Murphy Lab

What eventually drew you toward entering the PiBS program and choosing to stay in the CReM and the Murphy Lab?

I worked for my Dr. Murphy as a lab technician for my first two years in the CReM. During that time, I got to work alongside a lot of active PiBS students and get an in-depth understanding of what their lifestyle was like. A lot of them really enjoy the program and were really happy with choosing BU over other schools, as many of them had options at top tier programs across the country. Then, I started to research the structure of PiBS and the flexibility of not having to decide right away what department you’re going to join, and having a little bit more time to figure things out once you’ve gotten your feet wet. That was something that I really liked about the structure of the program. That’s how I chose PiBS, and then, after my first year, I chose the Molecular and Translational Medicine Department.

Can you talk about the research you’re doing in the Murphy Lab?

When I was working for George as a research technician, he was mainly focusing on blood development research and studying hematologic disorders such as sickle cell disease. Around the time that I was transitioning into the grad school program, he was pivoting into the longevity field through collaborations with other aging-focused researchers on campus like Dr. Tom Perls and Dr. Paola Sebastiani.

Right around that time, we had been talking about what it would look like if I joined back to the lab and what kind of projects I would be able to take on. He entrusted me with being the pioneer graduate student to take on the task of standing up this new longevity-focused research platform and gave me the flexibility to figure out what my own project would look like as part of his movement into a different field. That was a dynamic and exciting time, as we started to figure out how we could take both the models and tools that we had been using and apply them to a totally new and different field for both of us.

What is exciting to you about the research you’re doing in the Murphy Lab?

Todd presenting his research from the Murphy Lab.

We are interested in studying healthy aging and resiliency. We decided to look to a group that exemplifies this already, centenarians, or those who live to over 100 years of age. Centenarians not only live an incredibly long life, but they also commonly live the vast majority of those years in full health and with full cognitive ability. They’re extending that portion of life where you can be active and engaged as a member of your community, in other words extending the years that you would want to extend. We’re really interested in learning how they stay so resilient to a lot of the aging-related diseases that many others succumb to later in life.

What’s really exciting for us is being able to work and interact with these truly remarkable people. They’re super friendly and charming, and really fun to get to interact with. Then, we get to include them in some of the research that we do here. Something that I really enjoy doing with this project is talking about it with colleagues, friends, and family. I find that it’s a very accessible topic. People can bring what they know to it. Everyone is really interested in longevity and asks a ton of questions. I find that I rarely get the same question twice, so it’s really fun for me to present this. It keeps me on my toes.

Being able to study something that’s so accessible to the community, and more and more nowadays is finding its way into the public eye, is something that’s really fun for us.

How is your work important to the larger fields of healthful aging and disease resistance?

We’re approaching the aging field from a unique perspective by applying our model system, the induced pluripotent stem cell, or iPSC, to longevity research.  IPSCs, derived from just a small blood sample of an individual, captures the genetic makeup of that person and acts as a master stem cell which can be patterned in the lab into any cell type of the body. These cell lines are a renewable source of biomaterial we can use to develop our models in the lab. For a long time, iPSCs have been used to model a variety of genetic diseases, often derived from patient populations. I mentioned sickle cell disease, but there are a variety of genetic diseases that we study. We’re applying these tools and technologies to the longevity field and studying, in a reciprocal way, the genetic factors that underly centenarian resiliency. We’re taking a lot of our tools and applying it to a new field and figuring out where we can contribute.

What are your longer-term goals once you’ve completed your PhD? 

I will say, it’s a really fun time to be in the longevity research space. I want to be able to continue contributing, with my own research, to understanding aging some of the things we could do to improve people’s lives; not only extending the length of someone’s life, but increasing the amount of those years that someone is healthy. That’s a main goal of mine, whether that’s through developing therapies or simply improving the foundational knowledge of aging and what mechanisms are at play. Those are kind of the kinds of things that I really want to continue studying.

Are there any particularly important mentors that have guided you to this point?

I consider myself extremely lucky with the mentors I’ve been able to work with in just my short science career so far. One of which I’ve mentioned is Dr. Jennifer Fish at UMass Lowell. I mentioned she was the first lab that I was able to get involved in and she really gave me a lot of involvement in not only conducting the science, but also being involved in the discussions about where our project should go next, what our open questions were and the design of experiments that is equally as important to just conducting the science itself. She really entrusted me in being involved in those conversations, and I am a better scientist because of it. I would say that’s where I caught the ‘research bug’ and knew that’s what I wanted to do for my career.

Then, I would say, [Dr. George Murphy] has picked up where Dr. Fish left off. I mentioned he was pivoting into a new field through this aging focused research. He entrusted me in taking on that project, and gave me the opportunity to figure that out alongside him. Even earlier than that, when I first joined his lab as a technician, he quickly incorporated me into all of the active projects in the lab, and treated me more like a graduate student than a technician, which is not common in science. He really took the time to understand what my goals were and how he could help me, develop more as a young researcher. He’s not only taught me a lot about science, but also how to be a thoughtful lab member and collaborator. I think he really embodies what it means to be an exceptional mentor.

The yearly CReM Turkey Bowl.

What are your hobbies outside of your busy lab work?

I really enjoy staying active. I like to get outside and play various sports, like basketball and tennis, with friends. I also compete in local  fitness competitions that involve cycling, weightlifting, and CrossFit in the Boston area. I’ve continued that interest here at the CReM and helped organize a yearly Turkey Bowl, where everyone in the lab goes out right around Thanksgiving time, and we play a touch football game at one of the nearby fields. That’s always a really fun event for everyone that we look forward to during the year.

Is there anything else you’d like to share?

I take a lot of pride in being a part of the CReM. I have been here through an interesting time, because I started here pre-COVID, in 2018. I started grad school in August 2020, so right during COVID itself. During the initial pandemic shutdown, we overhauled our lab space into testing clinical samples for Boston Medical Center. So, we were testing in-house patients for Boston Medical Center when they had very few testing options. That was both a very stressful and dynamic time, but something that looking back, I think a lot of us take a lot of pride in how we were able to lend a hand in that trying time.

One of the things that drew me to the CReM was how their values align with mine. They believe in open-source science, where the things that we generate here and our technical know-how, we share with whoever wants to get involved in this kind of research. The CReM also has a history of doing a lot of great outreach programs in the local Boston community with bringing science to the next generation and a lot of the underserved around Boston. Through COVID, I got to see that first-hand, and how especially the researchers here at the CReM do as much as they can outside of just what they’re required to do with research, but trying to help in any way they can in the Boston community.