College of Graduate Studies Alumnus Researcher Earns NSF Postdoctoral Fellowship

Grace Milauskas
November 01, 2022
MUSC College of Graduate Studies alumnus John Barrows.

College of Graduate Studies alumnus John Barrows, a postdoctoral researcher at Kennesaw State, has earned a prestigious two-year fellowship from the National Science Foundation (NSF).

Barrows is the first postdoctoral fellow at Kennesaw State to earn the award. He currently works in the laboratory of professor of biochemistry Michael Van Dyke, Ph.D. The grant is worth $138,000 to further his study of DNA-binding proteins within bacteria and to involve undergraduates involved in the research.

"Postdocs kind of work behind the scenes," he said. "My experience shows that there are opportunities at Kennesaw State for postdocs to come in, do important work and find funding."

Before graduating with his Ph.D. and becoming a prestigious postdoctoral fellow, Barrows attended Clemson University. At Clemson, he studied biochemistry for his undergraduate degree, and his original path was to study chemical engineering for its unique combination of mathematics and science. But during his junior year, he took a biochemistry course that changed his career interests. "Learning the intricacies within a cell and how genes and proteins interact to maintain homeostasis sparked a new desire in my academic pursuit, prompting me to change my major to biochemistry and pursue a career in scientific research," said Barrows.

When accepted to the Medical University of South Carolina, Barrows joined Dr. David Long's laboratory, focusing on using Xenopus laevis egg extracts to study facets of DNA biology. His work in this laboratory revolved around two major proteins involved in genome integrity, BRCA1 and BRD4. Variants in BRCA1 are associated with elevated risk of breast and ovarian cancer.

"We have shown that nucleoplasmic extract (NPE), a concentrated fraction of nuclear proteins derived from interphase eggs, supports promoter-dependent transcription and subsequent mRNA processing from plasmid substrates," said Barrows. While in Long's laboratory at MUSC, he was awarded a competitive, intra-university grant through the South Carolina Clinical and Translational Research Institute (SCTR).

Van Dyke's laboratory at Kennesaw State uses an iterative selection method, restriction endonuclease protection, selection and amplification to identify preferred DNA binding sequences of unknown transcription factors in bacteria.

"Being a primarily undergraduate university, Kennesaw State has allowed me to pursue my desire for teaching through mentoring/teaching opportunities in both the laboratory and classroom," said Barrows. "I have mentored three undergraduate researchers in the lab and am currently an instructor for the Principles of Biology I Laboratory."

After receiving news of the fellowship, Barrows wanted to ensure teaching would remain at the forefront of his research. The fellowship money will help cover the day-to-day expenses of supervising research.

"In this grant, I emphasized that I'd love to get teaching experience," he said. "I worked with a couple of first-year students, and it was fun to mentor them throughout this past school year, so I'd like to continue in that aspect of the job, see them through as sophomores, juniors and seniors."

We asked Barrows to share some of his thoughts about science and his MUSC experiences.

How did it feel to receive the National Science Foundation (NSF) fellowship? What do you hope this fellowship will mean for your research?

I feel honored to receive this fellowship. This is the first post-doctoral fellowship awarded at my current institution (Kennesaw State University). Receiving this award hopefully shows that the scientific community is interested and willing to financially support our laboratory's research. Additionally, this funding will allow me to continue to be trained in the laboratory, as well as attend conferences and gain teaching experience.

What drives your commitment to science?

I am driven by the desire to understand basic principles of life. Organisms use similar fundamental DNA-templated processes to adapt and survive, such as repair, replication and transcription. Understanding the regulation of these processes is critical to our understanding of biology.

How has your experience at MUSC and the College of Graduate Studies impacted your approach to science and opportunities for the future?

My time at MUSC taught me how to think like a scientist; how to ask the right questions and design rigorous experiments. Through the mentorship of my primary mentor, Dr. David Long, and coursework, I also learned how to write grants and publications, a skill that undoubtedly helped me receive this fellowship.

What advice you would give to current students?

My advice would be to never stop asking questions and learning. Make a point to keep up with the literature in your field, and never be afraid to try an experiment.

Going forward, what things do you think MUSC and CGS should be focusing on for the future?

I think career development should be a top priority. Career day was useful, but the most career development I received was directly from my mentor. Anything CGS can do to prompt mentors to openly discuss future plans with their mentees would be great!