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PhD student Jason Gorman featured in The Record

May 13, 2011

Award-Winning Graduate Student Headed to NIH

Special from The Record

Jason Gorman
Jason Gorman
When Jason Gorman began his graduate work at Columbia, he thought he was in over his head. Just six years later, Gorman, who receives his doctorate this month in biological sciences, has been singled out by the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center as one of the field’s most outstanding graduate students.
Gorman’s work studying the proteins that repair broken DNA molecules—some of it already published in peer-reviewed journals—has earned him a position at the National Institutes of Health, where he will begin postdoctoral work this summer researching HIV. Earlier this month, he received the Harold M. Weintraub Graduate Student Award, which is given to a dozen students from all over the world by the Hutchinson Center in Seattle.
Eric Greene, an associate professor of biochemistry and molecular biophysics at Columbia, nominated Gorman for the award. “Jason is an absolutely outstanding student and a gifted research scientist,” Greene says, adding that he is “a cornerstone of my research group” and “the most outstanding student I have encountered at Columbia.”
Yet in 2005, the 32-year-old Gorman wasn’t sure if he had what it took. “I didn’t think I was going to end up making it through school,” Gorman says. “I thought I’d give it a shot, but I thought I was in over my head.”
He did one rotation in a lab on the Morningside Heights campus working in atomic force microscopy before he wound up at the medical center, in Greene’s lab, where he quickly felt at home.
“Being able to find the right place with the right work with the right people,” he says, was the key to his success.
Born in Lakeville, Mass., about 40 miles south of Boston, Gorman attended Boston University with the intention of becoming a business major. By the end of his sophomore year, however, he decided business wasn’t the right fit and turned to biomedical engineering.
After receiving his bachelor of science degree, he spent two years in San Francisco working as a software engineer for Gene Logic, a biotech company, before moving back East to work as a technician in the lab of Larry Shapiro, associate professor of biochemistry and molecular biophysics at Columbia.
“When I started in Larry’s lab, I had basically no lab skills whatsoever,” he says. “But I learned a lot there, and he encouraged me to apply to grad school.”
During his graduate work, Gorman developed new techniques that Greene says “will be the basis of much of the research done in my lab in upcoming years,” including a method of producing DNA molecules with specific kinds of damage. These damaged molecules are necessary for work on DNA repair proteins, and will help determine how these proteins fix broken DNA.
“When your cells divide, you have to replicate your DNA, so you have to make an exact copy,” Gorman says. “You have machines in your cell—proteins—that do this. They’re very good at making an exact copy, but once in a while there’s a mistake. So I work on a system [in which a repair protein] proofreads the copy to make sure that it is an exact duplicate, because if you start making errors in your DNA, that’s what can lead to diseases like cancer.”
At the NIH, his work will involve studying the structure of HIV and disease-fighting antibodies. The work will “be useful in developing a vaccine,” he says, because it will give researchers “an idea of the best way for antibodies to attack HIV.”
—by John Uhl