NIAMS Scientists – Diverse Backgrounds, Shared Goals

December 15, 2015

A Conversation with NIAMS Scientist Dr. Robert Walker, Jr.

Photo of Dr. Robert Walker, Jr.
Robert Walker, Jr., Ph.D.

Robert Walker, Jr., Ph.D., is Chief of the Career Development and Outreach Branch in the NIAMS Intramural Research Program (IRP). He was born and raised in Dayton, Ohio, and completed his undergraduate studies with a B.S. in Biology and a minor in Chemistry at Rust College in Holly Springs, Mississippi. Thereafter, he earned his doctorate in Biomedical Sciences (concentration in Molecular Parasitology) from Meharry Medical College (MMC) in Nashville, Tennessee. Dr. Walker completed his postdoctoral training at the NIH’s National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) and a secondary fellowship in Technology Transfer (NIH/NIAID). In addition to being Chief of the Career Development and Outreach Branch, he serves as the NIAMS liaison for Technology Transfer and Commercialization. In this interview, Dr. Walker discusses how his background in research helps him inspire the next generation of researchers.

Where did you receive your research training?

I was introduced to biomedical research training at MMC through the NIH Minority Biomedical Research Support Program during MMC’s Summer Research Internship Program. I spent two consecutive summers in the Department of Pharmacology and Biochemistry, gaining laboratory experience on basic research projects.

My first biomedical research experience was in the MMC’s Department of Pharmacology where I studied "The Role of Recreational Drugs on the Rat Brain" in Dr. Shyamali Mukherjee’s lab. My time there taught me the importance of thinking critically, asking the correct scientific questions, and using tools such as literature searches, proper experimental design, and data analysis and interpretation.

What or who influenced you to pursue a career in science?

Dr. Sayeed Arafat, Chair of the Division of Mathematics and Science at Rust College, mentored me during my sophomore year and encouraged me to apply for MMC’s 10-week Summer Research Internship Program. Although this experience was challenging, and I had my heart set on a baseball career because I had played collegiate and semi-professional baseball, he believed the internship would provide me with an opportunity to think abstractly and analytically, while using creativity and the scientific method to study diseases. The experience was life-changing!

What led you to become involved in scientific research and academia?

The summers working in the lab were pivotal because, based on these experiences, I decided to pursue a career in the biomedical sciences. I was motivated to discover something that would be groundbreaking in the identification and treatment of a disease.

My interactions with the professors, research scientists and graduate students, and the supportive mentoring environment at MMC, prompted me to apply to and attend the School of Graduate Studies and Research for my Ph.D.

I joined the Laboratory of Molecular Parasitology, where my dissertation project focused on "Gene Expression Regulation of Trypanosoma Alternative Oxidase (TAO) in Trypanosoma brucei brucei." Trypanosoma brucei brucei causes African Sleeping-Sickness, which is found in sub-Saharan Africa. This project and my curiosity for biomedical research also led to a shadowing stint in the Center for AIDS Research and Health Disparities. This Center was funded by an NIH grant awarded to MMC. It recruited specialized faculty from top tier medical schools to research HIV, obesity, and women’s health issues, and to establish community-based participatory research projects.

HIV Type-1 fascinated me because it is highly prevalent in minority communities in the United States and in areas of poverty globally. Working at the Center for AIDS Research and Health Disparities at MMC gave me an opportunity to learn from a team of experts how to identify novel targets for therapeutics development against this pathogen. It was through this connection that I decided to switch fields from molecular parasitology to HIV research.

How did you come to the NIH?

I received a Postdoctoral Intramural Research Training Award (IRTA) through the NIAID. I joined Dr. Klaus Strebel, Chief of the Viral Biochemistry Branch in the Laboratory of Molecular Microbiology. While in this laboratory, we studied mechanisms of host restriction factors on HIV pathogenesis.

Working on the main campus at the NIH helped me realize that I could have a career in science administration. I’d never considered that there was an infrastructure in place to support the vision and the continuation of biomedical research. I was exposed to career pathways like Scientific Review Officer, Program Directors, as well as careers in Grants Management, Technology Transfer, Policy and Communications, and many others. As part of my postdoctoral training, I interned for six-months in the NIAID’s Parasitology and International Programs Branch and Office of Technology Transfer and Intellectual Property (OTTIP). I worked on several unique cases, which piqued my interest in Technology Transfer. I later accepted another postgraduate fellowship in the NIAID OTTIP. I learned about the legal and business aspects of biomedical research and how those relate to protecting intellectual property, and further, about the roles and processes involved in the commercialization of novel research materials.

What do you enjoy about your NIAMS career?

As the Chief of the Career Development and Outreach Branch, my duties are multifaceted: I serve as the Training Director of the IRP; Liaison to the NIAMS Office of the Scientific Director; and Liaison to the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute’s Office of Technology Transfer.

These roles have allowed me to use my scientific and technology transfer backgrounds. I serve each sector with energy, enthusiasm and proficiency. That said, the most rewarding aspect of my career would have to be the mentoring and outreach components of our training program.

What have been the most rewarding or fulfilling aspects of your career?

I really value having former NIAMS trainees return to the NIAMS as successful scientists, physicians or physician-scientists. They often thank us for our role in their career development. Interacting with and assisting in career planning for our current IRP scientists, and recruiting future scientists for our research programs, reminds me of the importance of this position in shaping the future of biomedical science.

Equally, it brings me excitement and fulfillment when we assist our NIAMS investigators with technology transfer projects, in the patent process, and/or development of novel research materials to commercialization. It is so rewarding when I can interact with world-renowned scientists to help them protect their intellectual property and move their technology to commercialization.

What have been the most challenging aspects of your career?

Thus far, my greatest challenge has been to increase diversity in the scientific workforce. A diverse scientific workforce requires us — as scientists — to recognize voids in medical science, research, treatment, and care, and address those voids in ways that uniquely aid the diverse populations we serve. In the NIAMS IRP, under the leadership of our Scientific Director, we have launched a series of pilot programs to bridge the diversity gap in the scientific workforce. NIAMS has established a personalized style of mentoring that meets students where they are and helps them identify their career path, and customizes a plan to help them achieve their goals. It is rewarding to be able to foster an interest in people who have limited exposure to science, regardless of where they are from, or their racial, ethnic, or socioeconomic backgrounds. Increasing diversity and inclusion is an NIH priority. It will take scientists and physicians with unique perspectives and from diverse backgrounds to tackle current and future diseases.

What activities do you enjoy outside of work

I am a family-centered person. I enjoy spending time with my wife and new baby, and with close friends. Sports are a fantastic outlet for me. I am a very competitive person, and athletics always provide a great opportunity for competition. They also bring an element of teamwork that I find fulfilling.

I also enjoy all genres of music and must admit that music is my second love. Live music is like pizza, "it’s all good!" I relate my appreciation of music to those working in science or medicine, as we are all detail-oriented people. Music is an art, which takes creativity and time to master, just like discovering a new gene or understanding the functionality of a protein. Many people only see—or hear, in this case—the final product, but the creative process is essential and usually unseen.

Can you offer any final thoughts to those who wish to pursue a career in science?

A career in science can be very rewarding. Being a scientist means being adaptable and flexible to changes. The unexpected can be challenging. Having systems in place and being methodical about the way you work through challenges helps to alleviate stress and confusion. In the spirit of altruism, medical scientists dedicate their lives to research, hoping to discover a therapy that will treat or even cure a disease for one person or potentially millions of people whom they’ve never met.