Oluwaseun Ogunbona

Mitochondria are the cell’s powerhouses that provide the vast majority of all energy needed to run cellular activities. The energy comes in the form of a compound called adenosine triphosphate (ATP), which is made by a process referred to as oxidative phosphorylation. Oxidative phosphorylation is critical to tissues in the body that have a high energy demand and require the action of a transport protein, the adenosine diphosphate (ADP)/ATP carrier, which is what I study. This protein carries both ATP and ADP across the inner mitochondrial membrane in opposite directions to each other (ATP out of and ADP into the mitochondria), and the absence of this function is enough to stop ATP production by the mitochondrion. Proteins of the mitochondria and other cellular compartments are made either from cytoplasmic translation (majority of the proteins in the cell) or mitochondrial translation (few mitochondrial proteins). My research started with the aim of understanding how a mutation in the human ADP/ATP carrier caused a disease in a patient who presented with cardiomyopathy and myopathy (heart muscle and skeletal muscle dysfunction, respectively). Using a series of genetic and biochemical studies in yeast, we discovered that the activity of the ADP/ATP carrier is important for optimal mitochondrial translation.

In the field of mitochondrial biology, this discovery is an important one. For more than two decades, the reason why mutations in the ADP/ATP carrier protein cause defective oxidative phosphorylation have been elusive. Our intriguing finding established a novel link between energy regulation and the synthesis of proteins in the mitochondrion. This research was done in the lab of Dr. Steven Claypool in the Department of Physiology.

Questions & Answers

Why did you choose Johns Hopkins for your work?

In the final year of medical school, I decided that my next career move will be to do a Ph.D. in biomedical sciences, preferably cell physiology, in a reputable foreign institution. Because of this, I applied to five programs in three top-class United States universities. Having to make a choice among many good options can be difficult, but fortunately, I got accepted into the Cellular and Molecular Physiology Program at Johns Hopkins. Johns Hopkins has outstanding faculty members who are doing cutting-edge science. The opportunity to collaborate and share resources with many other departments is an advantage.

What does receiving this award mean to you personally and professionally? Do you have any connection with the particular award you received?

Immediately after I got the email message that I am one of the winners of the Young Investigators’ award, I wanted to know about the life of Alicia Showalter Reynolds, for whom this award is named. I discovered that she was last seen alive on March 2, 1996, exactly 22 years from the day I was reading this information. The investigation is still ongoing to identify her killer. I could only imagine what a great loss the then 25-year-old Johns Hopkins pharmacology graduate student, with a great and promising career as a scientist, was to family, friends and the world. It is even more saddening that the case is still considered open and justice has not been served. As a young scientist, receiving this award is a motivation to continue to do everything I can to make the world a better place for all. Whether it is at the bench doing experiments, at the bedside being involved with patient management or in society providing representation and advocacy, I hope it can truly be said of me that I am doing my best to ensure that everyone, irrespective of race, gender, accent, tribe, color, creed, disability, place of origin, socioeconomic or political status, is treated justly and equitably.

What contributed to your project’s success (special skills, interests, opportunities, guidance, etc.)?

Based on my assessment, I will say that my project’s success is based on the combination of many factors. Foremost is the guidance I received from my mentor, Dr. Steven Claypool. It would have been next to impossible to complete my project in the time frame if not for all the help I received from him. I also have the opportunity of being surrounded with many people to motivate and advise me every time it seems I have hit the rocks in my project. Finally, I had a clear goal for graduate school, and this is to make a significant contribution, however little, to advance the knowledge and understanding of the molecular basis of diseases. Therefore, though it seemed the process of learning techniques and solving the research question was slow and tortuous, I was very patient, and my interest and passion for a career in academic medicine sustained me through.

What thoughts do you have about Young Investigators’ Day itself, as a celebration of the roles student and fellows play in research at Johns Hopkins?

I first found out about Young Investigators’ Day in my early days at Johns Hopkins. My interest in applying for the award, which was very high initially, began to diminish over time as I worked on my project, since it looked like the rapid progress I anticipated was not forthcoming. I think the Young Investigators’ Day program is an emphatic statement by the leaders at Johns Hopkins that students and fellows really matter and deserve recognition for their excellent work. It is a good thing to be celebrated, especially when it is truly deserving, and I know every trainee at Johns Hopkins will get some sort of motivation from the program.

What has been your best/most memorable experience while at Johns Hopkins?

When I first came from Nigeria to the United States, I was very happy, and this was one of the best moments of my life. However, everywhere and everything was so different and sometimes confusing that, at some point, I began to wonder if this was due to the cultural shock or that I was not as smart as the people who gave me the opportunity and believed in me thought. In hindsight, I can see how much transformation has occurred, and my life has changed tremendously. The days of humble beginnings are truly memorable.

What are your plans over the next year or so? Graduating, looking for faculty positions, etc.?

I am graduating soon. In line with my career aim to be a physician-scientist, I will be starting clinical residency training on July 1 at my No. 1 choice program, which is the pathology residency research track at Emory University, a physician-scientist training program. In this program, I will focus on acquiring pathology clinical training, completing a fellowship and doing postdoctoral research for a couple of years, with the aim of securing a career transition research grant.

Tell us something interesting about yourself that makes you unique. Do you have any special hobbies, interests or life experiences?

Everyone is unique, and I think my successes and failures as an individual make me who I am and different from others. While it is impossible to give a synopsis of my life here, I hope that this piece is interesting enough to inspire someone reading it that they are capable of achieving their childhood dreams. Unknown to many people, I have been hearing-impaired from childhood and did not come to full knowledge and acceptance of this until I came to the United States after medical school training in Nigeria. I am grateful to everyone at Johns Hopkins for accommodating me in every possible way and to my department for paying for my first set of hearing aids. Finally, as a young boy, I loved playing soccer more than reading (yes!), and my team spirit probably developed from this hobby. Since I arrived Johns Hopkins, I have played in many indoor soccer tournaments at the Denton A. Cooley Center, and our team was the champion at least once and a finalist many times.