Undergraduate Matt Bombard hates to dress up, but on this occasion, he wore a pale blue dress shirt and a striped tie. He wanted to look professional for his presentation at a national neuroscience conference in San Diego to showcase his research on adult bone marrow stem cells and how they can reduce behavioral deficits in Huntington’s disease.
Bombard is one example of Dunbar’s students. They are among the best and the brightest, presenting relevant findings to some of America’s leading researchers and scientists. By the end of the day, Bombard had placed second in the nation.
When Dunbar’s students leave CMU, they become leaders, researchers, doctors, psychologists, neuroscientists, psychiatrists, pharmaceutical executives, university professors, surgeons and more.
For Dunbar, it all starts with teaching – the foundation for understanding and eventually conquering diseases that affect the brain.
“We are helping people understand what works and what doesn’t work, and that’s making a difference,” says the 1997 Michigan Professor of the Year.
CMU alumna Deborah Shear, who has three degrees from CMU including a Ph.D., says Dunbar has made significant strides for the university.
“His dedication and passion for everything he does is contagious, and it inspires everyone,” says Shear.
Shear works at Walter Reed Army Institute of Research – the largest Department of Defense entity for research worldwide – studying ways to treat and prevent traumatic brain injury including those sustained in combat situations.
Dunbar’s former students include:
- Farzad Mortazavi, a fellow researching Parkinson’s disease with the Michael J. Fox Foundation
- Rick Briscoe, a pharmacology safety director for one of the largest pharmaceutical companies in the world
- Kristi Martines, an assistant professor of neurobiology
- Michelle Mazei-Robison, a research scientist studying drug abuse
Recovering brain function focus of research
A major area of research in Dunbar’s lab over the past two decades has involved testing potential pharmacological treatments for neurodegenerative diseases. The lab also has focused on research using stem cells and dietary supplements.
One recent study involved bone marrow stem cell transplantation in a rat modeling symptoms of Huntington’s disease. When students implanted bone marrow into a damaged area of the rat’s brain, it significantly reduced working memory deficits and allowed surviving cells to function more efficiently. The findings were featured in prominent medical and neuroscience journals.
In 2006, Dunbar and his students partnered with northern Michigan-based Cerise Nutraceuticals. This ongoing project involves researching powerful antioxidants found in tart cherries and omega-3 essential fatty acids.
Studying natural biological compounds like this may help determine if side effects can be reduced. For example, Parkinson’s disease can cause a severe loss of muscle control and spasms that can lead to uncontrollable muscle contractions. The team also is reviewing whether these products can reduce memory deficits associated with Huntington’s and Alzheimer’s.
“Cerise provides an avenue for students in my lab to engage in important research and will further our understanding of these devastating, mind-robbing diseases, giving us new insights in our search for effective treatments,” Dunbar says.
Priming students for success
Whether it’s fighting for research stipends or building programs that will bring opportunities, Dunbar chases it all. He has supervised more than 200 research projects involving more than 500 of his students. Along his 30-year journey at CMU, Dunbar has built academic programs, research opportunities, and global partnerships.
New doctoral program attracting top-level students
In the future, CMU’s new Ph.D. program in neuroscience will continue to attract specialized students like Jessica Matchynski, who interviewed with several schools before deciding on CMU’s Ph.D. program. She’s already begun extensive Alzheimer’s research.
“You’re inspired to do more than what’s expected,” she says. “There’s something about Gary’s energy that really motivates you. He has such a strong belief in what we’re doing, and he’s very connected. He sees the application of research and personalizes it. He makes you want to make a difference.”
• By Tracy Burton