2014 Finalist: Leaders of Tomorrow sponsored by Alberta Enterprise and Advanced Education
PhD Student Controlling the Synthesis and Secretion of Pituitary Hormones
Obsession is a term Josh Pemberton uses when he describes his work ethic. Whatever the goal may be, Pemberton applies his full focus. Through this mentality he has achieved significant progress as a PhD student in the Department of Biological Sciences at the University of Alberta.
“I’m at that stage in doing basic science research where there are no other options for me, there’s no hope, I’m obsessed with these things,” Pemberton says with a smile.
Although the research bug has bitten Pemberton, academia was not always at the forefront of his mind. His original plan was to pursue a football career.
Straight out of high school Pemberton joined spring camp for the Calgary Dinos at the University of Calgary. During camp his football career came to a tragic end when he suffered a brutal ankle injury.
“For someone who played sports every single day of his life up until that point, not being able to have that competitive output was a major blow.”
Fortunately, Pemberton’s parent’s supported him in his pursuit of post-graduate studies. Much of his motivation to pursue research comes from his father, George Pemberton, a professor in the Department of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences at the University of Alberta.
“It’s really great to see how successful he’s been and also how much he loves what he does,” says Pemberton. “I can’t think of another job where someone is so happy going into work everyday.”
Inspired by his father, Pemberton discovered a love of research and has channeled his focus into making new discoveries about the brain.
Pemberton’s research is on the control of synthesis and secretion of two important pituitary hormones, luteinizing hormone and growth hormone. The control of these hormones is essential for the successful growth and reproduction in all vertebrates from fish to humans.
“If you are studying genes, proteins and cells you can find a way for it to be applicable to anyone,” Pemberton says.
Krogh’s Principle, first written in his work The Progress of Physiology, states, “For such a large number of problems there will be some animal of choice or a few such animals on which it can be most conveniently studied” For Pemberton’s research, this organism is the goldfish.
Pemberton explains that in mammals there is a very complex connection between the brain and the pituitary gland. However, in fish there is direct communication between the neurons of the brain and the cells of the pituitary.
By studying goldfish, Pemberton is able to determine how receptors for specific brain hormones control reproduction and growth. Understanding these interactions is key to understanding basic physiological and cellular processes underlying health and disease.
Through his research into goldfish pituitary function, he has uncovered some important findings that clearly show hormone control systems are not linear. These findings are among the first to show the intercellular signalling interactions that coordinate control hormone production and release using a primary anterior pituitary cell system, and in particular how different molecular forms of releasing hormones differentially influence cellular functions.
“Understanding how different structural variants of one hormone can signal through one receptor has very important implications for not only fish research, but for humans,” Pemberton explains.
“For example, you can look intracellularly, in one cell type, and can comment on changes in whole organism physiology. It is a pretty powerful thing to do that as it has some important applications in aquaculture and medical studies.”
Apart from his research career, Pemberton continues to be involved in the scientific community. He served on the Biological Sciences Department Council and is currently co-president of the Biological Sciences Graduate Students Association. Through his work in the departments he helped to organize research meetings and successfully raised funds to support these initiatives.
“I like being involved in and around the university because I think it’s important to understand not only your own circumstances but the circumstances of those around you. Graduate students are a very unique mix of people from around the world and they get together for the common goal of academic research.”
Pemberton says he enjoys interacting with people as well as being the voice for students, especially in light of the recent provincial budget cuts to post-secondary education. “In and around the university it was pretty easy to find the inspiration to want to help out,” Pemberton adds.