Molecules and medicine

Molecules and medicine

December 20, 2017

Jonathan Brestoff-Parker '08 has benefited from a laserlike focus, but his career path has also been marked by turnings that apply the skills of one discipline to other areas.

Jon Brestoff-Parker '08
Jon Brestoff-Parker '08

In high school he was fascinated by the interaction of nutrition and physical performance—an interest fueled by his own struggles with weight as a teen athlete. When he arrived at Skidmore, he wasn't at all sure how his studies would coalesce around those goals, so in his first years, he recalls, "I explored lots of ways of pursuing my interests," including social organizations, business, and writing—all yielding skills that he continues to draw on in his professional life. "Skidmore was a fertile ground for me to plug my interests into lots of different things."

In his sophomore year Brestoff-Parker won a prestigious two-year Goldwater scholarship in the natural sciences. His aims were becoming clearer. He told Scope magazine in 2006, "I would like to obtain a Ph.D. in metabolic diseases, with an emphasis on the relationship between obesity and Type 2 diabetes."

He went on to achieve that goal and much more, earning a master's degree in public health from Ireland's University of Cork in 2010 and a dual M.D. and Ph.D. from the University of Pennsylvania in 2016. The author of numerous research papers and coeditor of a textbook on immunology, he is also co-owner of a U.S. patent.

Along the way, the focus of Brestoff-Parker's scientific inquiry shifted as he discovered new applications for his knowledge. Research into cellular metabolism yielded insights into food allergies and certain cancers, for instance. "Cancer isn't typically thought of as a metabolic disease," he explains, "but with cancer we see tremendous metabolic changes, not only at the cellular level but also in the organs and the entire body."

Following such new avenues led Brestoff-Parker to his current position as a pathology resident at Washington University Medical School in St. Louis. He had long planned a residency in pediatrics, but he instead focused on his growing understanding of cells' molecular machinery. He saw applications of his work in two fields: developing new diagnostic tools and also providing therapy—harvesting tissue from a patient, manipulating it in the lab so it can fight disease, and then reintroducing it to the patient's body. Brestoff-Parker is passionate about enhancing these techniques and fostering their commercial potential. He'll keep doing so—until, perhaps, insight and curiosity point him in a new direction.

"Developing expertise in one field opens up windows where you can bring your knowledge into other disciplines," he says. "Education at Skidmore helped prepare me for that." —Jim Akin '84

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