Eukaryotic cells must find a balance between two processes: churning out proteins that conduct cellular business, and then dismantling and recycling those proteins to make room for new ones. When Gentry Patrick, a professor of neurobiology at the University of California, San Diego, first began his career, scant research had been done on how this recycling loop works in neurons. In the 20 years since then, he has explored how the mechanisms for breaking down proteins, long thought to primarily provide garbage disposal services in the cell, also play crucial roles in neuronal processes involved both in normal brain function and in neurodegenerative conditions such as Alzheimer’s disease.
But even as his research investigates this molecular balance within cells, there is a different type of balance within science that Patrick is extremely eager to shift: That of who feels at home in the world of STEM.
As a Black kid who came to college after growing up in an underprivileged community, Patrick says, “I fell in love with science primarily because it offered me a place where I felt like I belonged.” Over the past several years, as he established his own scientific career, Patrick has shifted a significant part of his professional focus to creating and scaling up mentorship opportunities designed to build that same sense of belonging for students from underrepresented communities.
In August 2023, Patrick was named the inaugural Kavli and Dr. William and Marisa Rastetter Chancellor’s Endowed Chair in Neurobiology. The $2 million appointment, which honors both his neuroscience research and his commitment to supporting marginalized students, is so gratifying, he says, because it reflects a recognition of “how neuroscience and social justice became one” in his career.
Growing up in South Los Angeles, Patrick was bolstered by family who encouraged his academic aspirations. He attended a magnet high school for science and medicine located adjacent to an historically Black medical College. He and his classmates got the educational benefit of doing rotations in the hospital, but they also got front-row seats to the trauma experienced by people in their community.
As the first member of his family to attend college, Patrick’s transition to student life at the University of California, Berkeley, proved to be “a culture shock,” he says. He majored in biology and worked in a lab, but by the time he found his footing, his grades were mediocre. His senior year, Patrick applied to do a master’s degree at UC San Francisco through a program for under-represented students. He didn’t get in. So he called up the program director – biochemist John Watson, one of the school’s first Black science professors – and chewed Watson’s ear for an hour, making the case for why the program should take a chance on him.
His entreaty worked. Patrick soon found himself in the lab of Erin O’Shea, a chemist and cellular biologist then at UCSF, who took him under her wing and essentially gave him a crash course in the research life, from work ethic to laboratory techniques. “My love of science really started there,” Patrick says. He spent two years in O’Shea’s lab studying how cyclin-dependent kinases – proteins that help control cell division -- regulate growth in yeast. Then, he landed a spot in the lab of Li-Huei Tsai, then at Harvard, for his Ph.D. studying cyclin-dependent kinases in neurons. In 1999, Patrick, Tsai, and colleagues identified a neuron-specific protein that activates a cyclin called Cdk5. They also found that an overabundance of a warped version of this protein in the brains of people with Alzheimer’s disease may contribute to disease pathology.
As a postdoc at the California Institute of Technology, and then in his own lab at UC San Diego, which he launched in 2004, Patrick continued to explore how protein degradation affects key properties of neurons, such as synapse formation and how activity-dependent spines form on dendrites, and how neuronal activity might in turn regulate these homeostatic cellular processes. But as he passed his 10-year-mark as a professor, he felt driven to make a different kind of an impact.
“I’m not an anomaly,” Patrick often says. Though few people in the halls of academia look like him, many of the kids he grew up with also had the interest and the intelligence to get there – if they’d had the kind of encouragement and support that their wealthier and whiter peers take for granted. Drawing on his own experience with mentors and advocates that steered his success, in 2018 he launched a program called PATHways to STEM through Enhanced Access and Mentorship (PATHS), that provides much needed financial support, mentorship, and exposure to research in biology, math, engineering, and other STEM fields. The following year, based partly on PATHS’s early successes, UCSD and UC Berkeley received a $6.9 million grant from the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative to bolster their STEM mentoring initiatives by bringing in ideas from a highly successful minority scholarship program – The Meyerhoff Scholars Program – developed at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County.
PATHS has now served more than 100 students at UCSD. Early on, Patrick told donors that if they could build a program that rivals nepotism, students would be successful. Indeed, though data on the program is still unpublished, the students are “knocking it out of the park,” he says.
Meanwhile, Patrick continues to look for new ways to intertwine his research with his more mission-driven work. Two years ago, spurred by the disproportionate effects of the Covid-19 pandemic on communities of color as well as the social unrest after the murder of George Floyd, he took an additional appointment as Director of the Center for Empathy and Social Justice in Human Health, within UCSD’s Institute for Empathy and Compassion. The Center is still defining the projects it will pursue, but at its core is the idea that a direct line exists from empathy and compassion to representation. Earlier this year, the Center launched a regional, San Diego arm of the national YOU Belong in STEM Initiative to explore what it would take to re-envision a more diverse STEM community in San Diego’s future.
In all of these endeavors, Patrick seeks to hold space in which people can come together in bold and courageous ways to truly affect peoples’ lives, he says. “I feel that I can contribute by crystallizing that voice of the community and of the underserved -- that's why I'm doing this.”