Raj Kumar is the Edgar L., Patricia M. Makowski and Family Endowed Chair in Obstetrics and Gynecology at the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus. He agreed to discuss his career and his thoughts on this difficult year as part of SSR’s recognition of Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month.
My current research efforts are focused on understanding gonadotrope development and molecular genetics of pituitary tumors, post-transcriptional regulation of gonadotropin subunit gene expression, gonadotropin synthesis and secretion, and age-dependent gonadotropin control of ovary, testis, bone, and adipose tissue development and physiology. We extensively use mouse genetic models and high throughput “omics” approaches in our research work.
We recently identified that the DICER-dependent miRNA pathway in gonadotropes is essential for gonadotropin homeostasis, determined the biological effects of age-specific follicle-stimulating hormone glycoforms (FSH), and discovered that FSH re-routing causes enhanced ovarian function and female reproductive lifespan. Our studies have a significant impact in understanding the physiology and pathology of the reproductive axis including abnormal reproductive tract development, infertility, ovarian aging, bone loss, visceral adiposity, and cancer of the pituitary and gonads.
My current lab members are Rosemary McDonald, Suzanna Kafer, Mark Larson, and Zhenghui Liu. Research in my lab is supported by the National Institutes of Health and The Edgar L., Patricia M. Makowski and Family Foundation.
What is your current position and what does it entail?
I am a Tenured Professor and The Edgar L., Patricia M. Makowski and Family Endowed Chair. I am also the Associate Vice-Chair of Research in the Department of Obstetrics & Gynecology and Research Director of the Colorado Women’s Reproductive Health Research (WRHR) Program. As a Professor, I manage my research laboratory and teach and train graduate, post-doctoral and clinical fellows in genetics and physiology of the reproductive axis. I also mentor junior faculty both within and outside of our Department/Institute. As an Associate Vice-Chair of Research, my administrative responsibilities include participation in overseeing the Department of Ob & Gyn Administrative Research Core team and in assisting the Vice-Chair of Research. As a Research Director of the WRHR program, I mentor Ob & Gyn clinician-scientists who are recruited as WRHR fellows. The Makowski Family Endowed Chair resources have helped me establish The Makowski Undergraduate Summer Fellowship, The Makowski Award for the Best Masters Student in Reproductive Sciences and Medicine at the Northwestern University, and The Best Predoctoral Platform Presentation Awards given at the Society for the Study of Reproduction (SSR) Annual Meeting.
Can you talk a little bit about yourself, where are you from?
I was born and grew up in Guntur town in Andhra Pradesh, a southern state in India. My parents gave me the freedom to pursue an academic career of my choice. I am the only one in the family who went on to do biomedical research. I enjoy reading the history of science, traveling (mostly by driving), and watching movies. Every year, I never miss the announcement of the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine and watching on television the Oscar awards ceremony.
What first attracted you to the world of science?
Plants, insects, and animals have been a fascination of mine since my early childhood days. In 6th grade, I enrolled in the advanced science program introduced in selected schools within our State. I had outstanding science teachers from 6th-10th grade and they influenced me a lot in furthering my interests in biomedical sciences.
And how did you get to be in your current position?
After completing my Bachelor’s degree with a major in Biology and Chemistry in Guntur (Hindu College, Nagarjuna University), I completed my Master of Science (Biochemistry) and Master of Philosophy (Reproductive Physiology) degrees at the Central University of Hyderabad. I joined the University of Delhi to pursue my Ph.D. degree. My Ph.D. mentor Professor K. Muralidhar (who taught me at the University of Hyderabad) is an inspiring teacher and researcher. He introduced me to gonadotropin research. While finishing my Ph.D. thesis work on biochemistry and immunochemistry of Indian water buffalo pituitary gonadotropins, I read the legendary papers describing transgenic mice expressing human growth hormone by Dr. Ralph Brinster and Dr. Richard Palmiter and naively wrote in the future directions chapter of my Ph.D. thesis that gonadotropin transgenic mice may also be generated in the near future. I didn’t realize I myself would do the in vivo transgenic mouse experiments (described above) on gonadotropins in the laboratory of Dr. Malcolm Low, who accepted me as a postdoctoral fellow in his laboratory at the Vollum Institute, Portland, OR. He trained me in molecular biology and mouse genetics. The move to Dr. Marty Matzuk’s laboratory at the Baylor of College of Medicine in Houston, TX was the best choice of my career. The excellent training that I received from Dr. Matzuk and the scientific freedom he gave me are just the PERFECT for any young researcher! I learned how to simultaneously carry out multiple diverse projects and not to lose focus. My next move to the University of Kansas Medical Center was made possible by the generosity of Dr. David Albertini who unselfishly provided in part the start-up funds (from his Hall Family Endowment Professorship funds) to establish my independent research laboratory. This opportunity provided me confidence in establishing and developing an active independent laboratory. Here, I rose to the ranks of Tenured Professor and the Director, Center for Reproductive Sciences. My mentors, Dr. Paul Terranova, Dr. Paul Cheney, and Dr. Michael Soares enormously encouraged and supported me. At the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus, where I am currently, I expanded my mouse genetics-based research program into the translational arena. This was made greatly possible by Dr. Nanette Santoro and her visionary leadership who not only gave me an opportunity into the administrative realm to serve as the Associate Vice-Chair of Research of Ob & Gyn Department and the Research Director of the WRHR program but also influenced Dr. Edgar Makowski (who passed away in 2019) in his commitment to bestow on me The Edgar L. and Patricia M. Makowski Endowed Professorship in 2016. The generosity of Dr. Makowski’s family members and the continued support from Dr. Santoro resulted in establishing The Edgar L., Patricia M. Makowski and Family Endowed Chair and selecting me as its inaugural recipient in 2019. Thus, at every step of my academic career, there were great mentors and colleagues who recognized the potential in me and provided me excellent opportunities, support and encouragement. I owe a great deal to them and I am in constant touch with all of them. I gratefully acknowledge the continuous funding support from the National Institutes of Health over the years and recently from The Makowski Family Foundation to carry out my research.
What impact has the pandemic had on your daily activities and your research?
The pandemic has greatly changed the daily routine of going to the lab, visiting the animal facility, and interacting with colleagues in the lab/Department/Institute. Careful planning, realizing the work priorities, and coping with so many rules/regulations have been very challenging. The pace of experimental research work clearly slowed down. We had to wait months to get aerosol pipette tips!!
Have you gained any valuable lessons from life during the pandemic?
Staying healthy has become the number one priority and everything else is secondary in life! Human interactions are vital to our well-being and everyone should have empathy and respect for others. Family ties have become stronger and never before, unlike in these tough times, I have spent so many hours with the family! The passion for science will have to continue no matter what we go through in life, if we want to achieve something and benefit humanity through our work.
What are you most excited to do over the next year?
I am excited to travel as before to attend scientific meetings where I normally meet many of my friends and colleagues. And fly with family to places that I visit every year in spring (Nashville) and summer (Pittsburgh and from there drive to explore the east coast)! Although my term as an Associate Editor of Biology of Reproduction ends in June 2021, I am excited that I will continue to serve on the editorial team of Biology of Reproduction, in a newly created position. I am also excited that I was invited to serve as a member on the 2022 SSR Annual Meeting Executive Program Committee.
What words of inspiration would you like to share with the future generation of scientists?
Realize your career path early and constantly pursue your goals, no matter how hard it is and how many obstacles you face. Always, go after excellence and success will surely follow. Do not hesitate to go across disciplines and collaborate with scientists with a diverse set of skills. Read the inspiring biographies and review articles by pioneers in your research field. Try to meet and be friendly to them. I am very fortunate that I met Dr. Ralph Brinster, spent some time with him and since then I have been in constant touch with him