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Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine

Student Q&A: Nathan Waldeck, Driskill Graduate Program in Life Sciences

Nathan Waldeck

Nathan Waldeck, a third-year student in the Driskill Graduate Program (DGP), studies the contributions of the body’s molecular “clock” to metabolic homeostasis. Waldeck works in the laboratory of Joseph Bass, MD, PhD, chief of Endocrinology in the Department of Medicine.

Where is your hometown?

I am from Farmersville, Illinois, a small town of about 800 people near Springfield, where I grew up on a family farm growing corn and soybeans.

What are your research interests?

My research in undergrad, and initially my master’s program, focused on quantitative genetics for crop improvement in soybeans. It wasn’t until I began working with genomic sequencing technologies in my master’s program at North Carolina State University that I became interested in groundbreaking genomics studies occurring in medical research. At Northwestern, I discovered the research of Dr. Bass, whose lab uses genomic approaches coupled with physiological approaches to answer important questions about the circadian rhythms of metabolism. Currently, my research is exploring the genomic control of distinct neuronal populations on circadian regulation of appetite and metabolic homeostasis.

What exciting projects are you working on?

Primarily, I am focusing on a phenomenon described in individuals who are trying to lose weight. Following weight loss through a hypocaloric diet, many individuals see a return to their previous higher body weight and may even notice greater weight gain. A “reprogramming” of the body weight setpoint is thought to occur, which makes long-term weight loss difficult to maintain. However, the physiological basis for this event is largely unknown. My investigations are working with populations of neurons in the hypothalamus, which serve as the primary nutrient-sensing cells of the brain. Signals are relayed through the hypothalamus from the body to the brain and vice versa to drive daily feeding habits.

Additionally, our lab is interested in the established contributions of the body’s molecular “clock” to metabolic homeostasis. Increased attention is being placed on the importance of proper light exposure and meal timing to an individual’s overall health. Through careful genetic targeting of circadian genes in cells regulating feeding behavior, I am investigating the importance of circadian control in regulation of proper metabolism rhythms and the consequences of dysregulation to overall health.

By investigating neurons known to be involved in hunger drive and metabolic homeostasis, I hope to uncover molecular events connected with the “reprogramming” theory that may lead to a greater understanding of the mechanics necessary for weight loss.

What attracted you to the PhD program?

The strong research reputation of Northwestern is originally what attracted me to the program. I had particular interest in the DGP because of the translational research focus of many of the labs. Once I attended my interview weekend and saw the thriving research campus located in the middle of downtown Chicago, I was sold. My meetings with enthusiastic faculty also made me confident that I would find a great environment for the next step in my research career. 

What has been your best experience at Feinberg?

As a “non-traditional” student coming in with a background in plant genetics, I think my best experience has been the availability of resources to familiarize myself with mammalian biology and new techniques that I have found to be essential for my research. Experts teaching in both the core and elective classes, as well as collaborations between different departments, have helped make the transition for me successful. I have also found that my skills in statistics and bioinformatics helped contribute to synergistic collaborations. It really has been a great environment for successful research opportunities.

How would you describe the faculty at Feinberg?

Expanding upon my “best” experience at Feinberg, I think the faculty here are fantastic. One can find experts who have had established labs for 30+ years alongside brand-new faculty who bring with them expertise in developing technologies. I have not had to look far when considering a new approach to my research and have found even the most established PIs to be very approachable and helpful.

What do you do in your free time?

One draw to working in Chicago was having all of the amenities of a large city available for my down time. I enjoy trying new restaurants, visiting museums and even attending a sporting event or two. Additionally, I am a fan of standup comedy and like to take in a show whenever I can. Even after being here for a few years, I find that there is always something new to explore in the city. I also enjoy traveling and try to work my research schedule around making sure I have time to relax and regroup.

What are your plans for after graduation?

After graduation, I plan to continue in research. I will pursue a position as a postdoctoral researcher in genetics. I think the specific focus of my continued research may be developed as my thesis research continues to progress, but I enjoy the scientific process and would like to stay around research in the future. Fortunately, I should have a couple of years to decide on the next steps.