A career filled with teaching, mentoring, and discovery

Jim Jefferson in glass hallway with students in background

Leonard (Jim) Jefferson, Ph.D.

Many of the first faculty members at the newly established Penn State College of Medicine found their way to Hershey through unconventional routes. Leonard (Jim) Jefferson, Ph.D., was no exception.

Following the completion of his doctorate at Vanderbilt University, Jefferson went on to do post-doctorate work at Cambridge University. While there, he had a visit with his former professor from Vanderbilt, Howard E. Morgan, M.D., who came offering Jefferson a position at Penn State. This was in the fall of 1966, a time when Morgan was recruiting rising stars in the medical and research fields for Penn State’s newly established Department of Physiology.

“I took the position sight unseen out of respect and regard for Dr. Morgan, who was a mentor and provided many opportunities for me,” Jefferson recalls. “I was also excited about being able to get in on the ground floor of the pioneering spirit of a new medical school.”

Jefferson began his Penn State career with an office in what is now The Cocoa Beanery. He is currently the Evan Pugh Professor of Physiology and chair of the Department of Cellular and Molecular Physiology, a post he will be stepping down from later this year. The shift in duties will allow Jefferson more time to devote to discovery research in his lab, which he notes is one of his true passions. “Besides my passion for research and discovery, I try to enable the younger generation to succeed in what they want to do.”

Jefferson’s lab has a long history of providing research opportunities for both undergraduate and graduate students. He has trained twenty-three Ph.D. students and forty-five post-doctoral fellows to date. “Part of my commitment going forward is continuing my work with three graduate students and three post-doc fellows.”

“We have just been successful in getting two NIH grants renewed that have been running continuously for more than forty years,” Jefferson says. Among many research successes, the lab is most noted for having identified the signaling pathways and regulatory mechanisms through which hormones and nutrients act to facilitate changes in mRNA translation. Since translational control of gene expression occurs in all cells, discoveries in this area apply to other areas of research, including aging, development, and cancer.

“My Ph.D. training was related to diabetes. What really influenced my direction was seeing photographs of children with Type 1 diabetes before the discovery of insulin in 1922,” Jefferson says. “These children displayed a remarkable loss of muscle mass, which got me interested in protein metabolism.” Jefferson and his colleagues have recently been doing more translational research to prevent loss of skeletal muscle, a characteristic, debilitating response to many severe diseases including cancer, sepsis, uremia, and AIDS, as well as to disuse conditions such as chronic bed rest, casting, and immobilization.

During his career, Jefferson also served for more than a decade as senior associate dean of research and graduate studies, when he was able to establish the core labs that support research in general, start an internal research grant program, and initiate the forum for graduate students, among other accomplishments. But mentoring, both of his own two children and stepson as well as his students in the lab, is still one of his most gratifying accomplishments. “I enjoy helping young people identify their passions and have tried to create an environment where people can learn with one another.”

– By Holly Swanson

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