Growing up in Montana, David Werner fueled his curiosity about the natural world with frequent visits to Yellowstone and Glacier National Parks. While majoring in biology and chemistry at Ashland University in Ohio, his interest in neuroscience peaked when he realized that treatment for neurodegenerative and neurophsychiatric disorders is geared toward symptoms rather than the root cause.
Fast forward a few years and Werner entered Gregg Homanics’ lab at the University of Pittsburgh, working on genetically modified mouse models to investigate the mechanisms of action of anesthetics and alcohol. His successful time in the Homanics’ lab led to the publication of thirteen research papers. Werner then continued his training with a postdoc position at the University of North Carolina (UNC) in A. Leslie Morrow’s lab, studying the contribution of protein kinases to GABAA receptor regulation.
Following his time at UNC, Werner established an independent research lab in the Behavioral Neuroscience Division, Psychology Department at Binghamton University in Binghamton, New York. Here, his research focuses on intracellular signaling pathways and their contribution to neurotransmitter receptor regulation during development, and how central nervous system depressants such as alcohol perturb this maturation. “In utero exposure is well known to result in fetal alcohol spectrum disorders” Werner says “but the ramifications of even low levels of exposure are poorly understood. In parallel, most Americans first consume and abuse alcohol during adolescence, but our knowledge of its enduring consequences are just beginning to be illuminated.” His lab uses a combination of molecular, cellular, neurochemical, and behavioral approaches to try to understand how developmental exposure to depressants may relate to long-term consequences in anxiety, impulsivity, risk taking and substance abuse-related behavior, as well as to try to identify novel therapeutic targets.
Werner began his faculty search during the recession and ultimately decided that Binghamton University was the right fit. “Seeing the turmoil with research funding and ‘soft money’ positions throughout the country, I knew I wanted to be in a position such as a liberal arts and science school that had backing from the institution with significant support on multiple levels for neuroscience research.” Werner says. With a focus on development, drugs of abuse/addiction, sensory systems, and neurodegeneration, the behavioral neuroscience program at Binghamton University provides a very collegial, supportive environment for his research program to prosper, with multiple intra-department collaborative projects that combine the expertise of its PIs. “Our department is truly greater than the sum of its individuals.” says Werner.
His current position involves a mix of responsibilities from research, teaching and department/university service. “I think it takes a very dedicated, disciplined type of individual to make sure that adequate time is devoted so as to perform at a high level in all three areas.” Werner says. “Long hours and evenings/weekends working at home are normal – but then, if you love what you’re doing, then it’s not really work!” With a mix of undergraduate and graduate students at Binghamton University, he enjoys seeing the excitement and passion of the next generation of scientists.
Outstanding mentors, whom he continually looks to for advice, have played an important role in his research career. “I learned from my mentors early on that no one should have a single mentoring style – one must be very malleable and adapt to the needs of every mentee. Nonetheless, I hope that I ultimately impart upon all my students increased self-confidence, independent thinking coupled with hard-working, persevering qualities.” says Werner. In 2012, Werner celebrated the graduation of the first master’s student from his lab, with his first doctoral student slated to defend in early 2015. “It’s always a great feeling to see your students professionally advance, especially knowing that you played an intricate role in helping them achieve their goals.”
Despite his success, Werner remains grounded. “I had no idea I would be in this position after finishing my doctorate. I originally thought I would end up working in an industry setting. I consider myself very lucky to be able to wake up each day – being in a career that I love, studying questions that are of a personal interest and working alongside terrific colleagues. As an added bonus, given my personal interests, although I personally feel most places pale in comparison to Montana, living in upstate New York has been nothing short of fabulous. Overall, I’m living a dream.”