The opportunity to work as an undergraduate in a research lab lit a fire for Keith Henry and took him to a career in university teaching and research.
If not for a mentor who took him under his wing while an undergraduate, Keith Henry might today be pursuing a career in music rather than unlocking the mysteries of cell-to-cell communication that influence human behaviors such as addiction and depression.
Henry, assistant professor in the Department of Physiology, Pharmacology and Therapeutics, has been with the UND School of Medicine and Health Sciences for three years. His research, funded by a grant from the National Institutes of Health (NIH), focuses on the serotonin and dopamine transporters that enable cells to communicate by moving proteins, ions and other compounds in and out of the cells.
“We study how cells get information from the outside and how they’re able to read these signals,” he explained. “They can be danger signals or signals that there’s food out there or another cell nearby — whatever information the cell needs and uses.”
Henry’s research relates to the development of new drugs to treat a wide variety of diseases and disorders, such as post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, anxiety, obsessive-compulsive components, autism, aggression, sleep, and sexual drive.
“It has a lot of value to society, not only in treatment of people who may have depression or disorders that affect their everyday livelihood and function, but also because addiction is such a huge problem in society,” he said. “There’s so much money that goes into combating the effects of addiction: the cost of treatment, lost productivity, and everything that goes with the addiction cycle.”
As an undergraduate, Henry went to the University of Tennessee in Knoxville as a music major on a French horn scholarship. He knew he was interested in science, but in his first two years he “just sort of floated around,” not certain what he wanted to do. That changed when he took a course on the physiological basis of behavior.
“It just really intrigued me that our behaviors are biochemical and not nearly as free-willed as we might hope,” he recalled.
He also took a course in genetics where a teaching assistant suggested that he consider working in a laboratory to experience research firsthand. That led to a discussion with Jeffrey Becker, currently a professor at the University of Tennessee and head of microbiology there.
“He was very open and he let me start working in his lab as an undergraduate student,” Henry said. “At first, it’s overwhelming because you’re not used to that environment. You’re used to coursework, which is very structured and mostly watered-down science. In a laboratory, you’re immersed in scientific thinking.”
Henry elected to do his graduate studies at the University of Tennessee, where he received his Ph.D. From there, he went on to the Vanderbilt University School of Medicine as a post-doc before coming to UND.
Today, Henry employs students in his lab and encourages medical students and undergraduates interested in science to spend some time getting a taste of research.
“I have a passion for mentoring students because I was a student who needed it,” Henry said. “I liked a lot of things and was proficient in them, but I didn’t have a focus. My mentor got me into the lab and I got excited. I got focused on something that I fell in love with.”
He knows that not all students will find lab research as rewarding as he did, but that’s part of the process of discovering who is best suited for the research environment.
“I loved the challenges that it posed,” Henry recounted. “It gives you respect for how science works. You don’t usually get that in regular lab courses. You can follow a process along and see how to use hypothesis-driven research to try to understand a problem.
“It’s very rewarding for me to work with a student — be it an undergraduate, graduate or post-doc — and explain a concept or introduce an idea and see them get it,” he continued. “They see the complexity and the wonder and the amazement of the questions we’re trying to answer. They want to find the answer; they want to understand the process.”
That’s why Henry is as committed to giving students the opportunity to be involved in research as he is to understanding how cells communicate.