Amgen Scholars Program: Jonathan Stoltzfus, PhD

Dec 28, 2015 9:30 AM ET

Jonathan Stoltzfus

Host Institution: University of California, San Francisco (UCSF), 2007

Undergraduate Institution: Messiah College

Hometown: Harrisonburg, Virginia

Graduate Institution: Perelman School of Medicine, University of Pennsylvania

Graduate Degree and Research Area: PhD, cell and molecular biology, 2013

Jonathan Stoltzfus’s summer as a UCSF Amgen Scholar in 2007 confirmed his desire to become a scientist and catalyzed his career. As an early-career scientist in academia, he is now bringing to aspiring scientists the research opportunity he had as an undergraduate.

In 2006, as a rising junior in college, Stoltzfus got his first taste of independent scientific research when he journeyed to a rural part of Zambia, a landlocked country in southern Africa. His experiments at the Malaria Institute at Macha focused on how malaria—caused by a parasite that ravages red blood cells—affected children; and shadowing his adviser during rounds in the community hospital gave Stoltzfus a firsthand look. “Seeing children in comas and suffering from cerebral malaria drove home the purpose of my own experiments in the lab,” he recalls.

In Zambia, Stoltzfus’s day-to-day experiences doing research were frustrating. Electrical outages would thwart his experiments, and the scientists had to wait endlessly for supplies they needed.

By the end of the summer, Stoltzfus knew he liked research but wanted to try it in a well-equipped lab. The opportunities for cutting-edge hands-on research back home at Messiah College in Pennsylvania were few. That’s why Stoltzfus was thrilled to be accepted into the Amgen Scholars Program.

In the UCSF lab of Creg Darby, Stoltzfus studied the bacterium that causes the plague, Yersinia pestis, using the tiny worm Caenorhabditis elegans, a creature common to scientific laboratories. Working with then graduate student Kevin Drace, Stoltzfus was allowed to pursue his project with intellectual freedom, plenty of resources, and top-notch mentorship. “Kevin encouraged me to ask the why and how questions about my project and to begin to learn how to answer my own questions and design my own experiments,” he says.

Stoltzfus went on to conduct postbaccalaureate research at the National Institutes of Health and earned a PhD at the University of Pennsylvania in four years. Since 2013, Stoltzfus has taught biology at Hollins University, a small liberal arts institution. Working with worms, Stoltzfus develops original research questions and encourages undergraduate students to tackle them to find answers as part of their laboratory courses or in dedicated research time.

Mentoring those undergraduates is an important focus for him. The style of mentorship that Stoltzfus received as an Amgen Scholar influenced how he in turn mentors students like Adeiye Pilgrim, a recent Hollins graduate. “I got excited by being able to do things on my own in the lab and make mistakes,” Adeiye says, adding that Stoltzfus’s mentorship and the environment he created in his lab solidified Adeiye’s desire to pursue research as a career, she adds.

“I really enjoy mentoring young scientists to think critically and carefully about scientific problems,” Stoltzfus says. “Watching them blossom as they gain confidence in their technical skills and understanding of the field is amazing and one of the best parts of my job.”

Editor's note: since reporting for this story, Jonathan has started a postdoctoral research position in the Department of Biology at the University of Pennsylvania.

To learn more, please visit the Amgen Scholars Program 2014 Annual Report.


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