Graduate student Chris Jurgens applies his lifelong interest in research to finding better treatments for epilepsy.
Chris Jurgens has always been interested in how things work. As a boy, he asked his parents, “’Why do we have wind?’
“And I made them answer it,” he says.
The graduate student, earning his Ph.D. degree in pharmacology, physiology and therapeutics, credits his parents, Richard Jurgens, chief operator at Grand Forks’ water treatment plant, and Sharon Jurgens, a teacher, with fostering that sense of inquiry.
Born and raised in Grand Forks, Jurgens’ wide-ranging interests propelled him to take classes at UND while still a high school student. By the time he graduated from Red River High School in 2001, he’d earned enough credits to enroll as a sophomore at UND where he majored in communication and music with a minor in math.
For a time he considered medical school but, after a brief stint volunteering at a local clinic, he decided he “wasn’t cut out for patient contact.” He answered an ad for lab assistants, posted by Van Doze, Ph.D., associate professor of pharmacology, physiology and therapeutics.
“I thought I’d be washing dishes,” he recalls, but found in Doze a gifted mentor who would guide him into the realm of serious scientific investigation.
“I was able to do experiments,” he says, “and was drawn to the assortment of “toys,” high-tech equipment that fills Doze’s “very hands-on lab.” Science “came alive” for him in that lab.
“I’m a ‘big-picture’ person,” Jurgens says. “I like to figure out mechanisms and how we can use (this knowledge) to help people. I’m interested in how we can use the small things I’m able to study to improve patient care at-large.”
Searching for more effective drug treatments
His research is focused on epilepsy and the role of norepinephrine in controlling seizure activity. A naturally occurring antiepileptic compound in the brain, norepinephrine doesn’t interfere, and actually enhances, learning and memory.
“If we could find out how it works – the mechanisms underlying its antiepileptic properties – then we may be able to develop new drugs that are more effective and cause fewer or no adverse side effects,” Doze says.
|I’m interested in how we can use the small things I’m able to study to improve patient care.
Jurgens, who’s received numerous awards and recognition at UND, most recently has been selected to attend the National Graduate Student Research Festival, an annual two-day event at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in Bethesda, MD. The event introduces 250 advanced graduate students in the sciences to the NIH Intramural Research Program with the aim of recruiting them to do postdoctoral training at NIH.
“Competition to participate is intense,” Doze says. “In 2006, 964 applications were received” for the Festival during which students present posters, attend plenary sessions, tour the NIH and interview with investigators interested in hiring postdoctoral fellows.
Jurgens is “one of our top students,” Doze says. “He’s conducting research of significant impact; (foundations) wouldn’t fund these research projects if they didn’t show potential.”
For his part, Jurgens says working with Doze has been “a very positive experience.
“He’s shown me a lot of things, and also how to work on my own — working with the equipment and figuring it out — and how to set up experiments. It makes me a very versatile person.
“He’s fostered learning in many different ways (including) encouraging me to write grants… He’s very enthusiastic about research and very enthusiastic about providing research opportunities for students.”
And “the department has been supportive of me,” he adds, “not only in money but also motivation, being recognized for doing things well.”
Whether he eventually moves on to the NIH or another academic institution after completing the Ph.D. degree next year, Jurgens sees himself “always having an epilepsy focus,” he says. “It may not be all that I do, but it will be a part.”
- Pamela D. Knudson
Some of the awards and honors Chris Jurgens has received:
- Epilepsy Foundation Pre-doctoral Training Fellowship, 2006
- Doctoral Dissertation Assistantship award (from North Dakota Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive Research (EPSCoR)), 2006
- Outstanding Graduate Student Presentation award (from North Dakota Academy of Science), 2007
- Outstanding Graduate Student Poster award (UND medical school’s Frank Low Research Day), 2007
- National Institute of Health (NIH) National Graduate Student Research Festival (selected to attend annual event at NIH in Bethesda, MD), October 2007
- Scientific papers (first author) published in Journal of Pharmacology and Experimental Therapeutics and Molecular Pharmacology, flagship journals for the American Society for Pharmacology and Experimental Therapeutics