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Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine

Meet Paula Stern, PhD Professor and Vice Chair of Molecular Pharmacology and Biological Chemistry

Paula Stern, PhD

Since joining the Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine faculty in 1966, her colleagues and students have recognized Paula Stern, PhD, professor and vice chair of molecular pharmacology and biological chemistry, as an exceptional educator and scientist. She received two Feinberg educational awards: the George H. Joost Outstanding Teacher Award and the Dean’s Award for Teaching Excellence. She was also lauded as a Distinguished Woman in Medicine and Science by the Women Faculty Organization.

Additionally, the American Society for Bone and Mineral Research, Stern’s professional affiliation, named one of its esteemed honors after her. The annual Paula Stern Achievement Award recognizes a woman who has made significant scientific achievements in the bone field and who has promoted the professional development and advancement of women in this area.

Q: What are your research interests?
A: I am interested in bone cell biology. I focus on the mechanisms of bone formation and resorption, including the actions of hormones, cytokines, physical forces, pharmacological agents, and disease processes. Ultimately, I am interested in understanding the mechanisms of bone diseases and identifying potential new therapeutic targets.

How did you become interested in this area?
It was an odd transition. My PhD research in pharmacology focused on effects of hepatotoxic agents. I was intrigued by the role that the endocrine environment played, so I did post-doctoral training in endocrine research. I joined a laboratory that was doing groundbreaking work on hormone effects in bone. This was a relatively new area, especially therapeutically. At that time, osteoporosis was considered an inevitable consequence of aging. Bone research has continued to be exciting, and over the years has led me to learn more about rheumatology, immunology, nephrology, cancer, cardiology, and neuroscience, as these areas impact bone.

How does your research advance medical science and knowledge?
The research of my laboratory, along with studies from clinical collaborators, has allowed us to address and answer diverse questions regarding bone disease. In very early work, we developed a bioassay for the active form of vitamin D. This enabled us to understand why some patients with sarcoidosis develop hypercalcemia and address other questions related to vitamin D and calcium metabolism. Another area of interest has been thyroid–bone interactions. Our research identified the role of thyroid hormone target genes, growth factors, and cytokines involved in these effects. In other studies, we identified a factor mediating bone effects of prostate cancer metastases. We are currently studying the differential mechanisms of estrogen and androgen in males and females. Our long term research has been on parathyroid hormone, which has both anabolic and catabolic effects on bone. The different G protein-mediated signaling pathways activated by parathyroid hormone and the genes that are affected by these parathyroid hormone effects are being investigated in our current research. Recently, an accepted manuscript on that topic, co-authored by Jun Wang, PhD, research assistant professor of molecular pharmacology and biological chemistry, Annette Gilchrist, PhD, adjunct assistant professor of molecular pharmacology and biological chemistry, and me was designated a “must-read” by Faculty of 1000, which was exciting.

How is your research funded?
Since I came to Northwestern, our major funding has been a grant from the National Institutes of Health (NIH), “Effects of Hormones on Signal Transduction in Bone.” We have also benefitted from other funding sources. For example, some of the thyroid hormone research was supported by a Howard Hughes fellowship to a Feinberg medical student, Bill Huang, which enabled him to spend a year in my laboratory. The prostate cancer work started through a pilot project grant from the NIH-funded Northwestern University Specialized Program of Research Excellence. Our investigation of gonadal hormones was funded by a Pioneer Award from the Northwestern University Institute for Women’s Health Research. The ability to generate preliminary results and publications through these pilot grants is invaluable.

What do you enjoy about teaching/mentoring young scientists in the lab?
Young scientists with diverse backgrounds bring new ways of thinking, new ideas, and new interests to the laboratory. It is a delightful experience to design experiments together, look at results, and discuss further plans. It is an important, positive stimulus for students to see their results published. I have been fortunate to have also had a number of talented and enthusiastic young post-docs and visiting scientists from Japan, Austria, and Hungary join our group over the years. In addition to the research activities, learning about these countries and cultures has been exciting and broadening. Keeping in touch with former trainees is like having an extended family