Gettysburg grad’s research could make world-wide impact

Gettysburg College graduate Debra Wolgemuth '69 is working with researchers in New York City who are closing in on developing the first-ever marketable male contraceptive pill, which could have worldwide impact. But that's not all Wolgemuth has accomplished since graduating. The scientist has received advanced degrees from Vanderbilt and Columbia, and has spent the past 40 years conducting complex experimental research, mentoring graduate students and post-doctoral fellows, and working with global health organizations. Find out more about what makes her "Gettysburg great" below.

Where do you work?
I am a tenured professor in the Departments of Genetics & Development and Obstetrics & Gynecology at Columbia University Medical Center. I direct a research laboratory of 12 investigators that include technicians, master's and Ph.D. students, and post-doctoral fellows. Melissa Weisbach '09, a Gettysburg College alumna, is currently a technician in my laboratory. I also serve as the Associate Director for Research and the Director of the Ph.D. program in Nutritional and Metabolic Biology at the Institute of Human Nutrition, and served as the Director of the Division of Cancer Genetics and Epigenetics at the Herbert Irving Comprehensive Cancer Center for 15 years.

What projects are you working on?
All three of the projects I am currently working on are related to the regulation of sperm production. The first project involves genes containing bromodomains and their role in chromatin remodeling. The second project involves genes controlling male germ cells undergoing mitotic division and meiosis. The third project, which has received a lot of media attention recently, involves the development of a male contraceptive pill. My team and I came across a scientific paper by researchers at the biopharmaceutical company Bristol-Myers Squibb that discussed the use of synthetic derivatives of Vitamin A for treatment of several diseases. Bristol-Myers actually closed the division that was conducting the experiments after finding the drugs resulted in testicular toxicity. These results intrigued us, so we obtained the compound that was used and began our own study. We found we were able to inhibit sperm production in male mice using even lower doses of the nonhormonal drug. The mice regained fertility when taken off of the drug. We are collaborating with medicinal chemists at the University of Minnesota to develop compounds that may be more specific to the particular protein that the drug inhibits. We are also preparing to study how long an animal can remain on the drug and still resume fertility after being removed from it.

How did your Gettysburg College liberal arts education prepare you for your future?
I am consistently commended on my writing, analytical, and communication skills, whether it is in reference to writing manuscripts or grant proposals, or delivering seminars at other universities or national conferences. Such skills, at the heart of a liberal arts education, allow you to develop a logical argument and then effectively present it, and are critical in any field. I personally look for liberal arts graduates when hiring technicians for my laboratory; I want people who can think and question and not just routinely follow instructions.

Who were your mentors at Gettysburg College?
Professor Darrah's love of science was absolutely contagious. Even though I never had Dr. Cavaliere for class, I frequently interacted with him as a student and continue to in my current role as a trustee. My nephew, Christian Wolgemuth '12, recently took a course in electron microscopy taught by Dr. Cavaliere. And it wasn't just my science teachers who helped shape my future - my religion professor, John Loose, conducted my wedding ceremony.

What are some favorite memories from your student days?
I was selected to be a part of the first group of women permitted to live without a housemother. There were three honor cottages on campus, and applicants had to meet certain GPA requirements to even be considered. I valued being a part of that process, which helped establish more independent living opportunities for students. Most importantly, the friendships I developed at Gettysburg have lasted decades. I continue to keep in touch with my Gamma Phi sorority sisters, women from my living units, and both men and women I met my first day on campus.

What advice would you give a current student interested in your field?
Get as much experience doing research as possible through your coursework and summer research opportunities, whether with Gettysburg faculty or alumni-supported research fellowships. I continue to hear from Gettysburg students who performed research in my lab, and they have gone on to do many great things. While it takes networking and initiative, working with alumni can help shape your career.

Founded in 1832, Gettysburg College is a highly selective four-year residential college of liberal arts and sciences with a strong academic tradition. Alumni include Rhodes Scholars, a Nobel laureate, and other distinguished scholars. The college enrolls 2,600 undergraduate students and is located on a 200-acre campus adjacent to the Gettysburg National Military Park in Pennsylvania.

Contact: Tracey Dukert, assistant director of news content, 717.337.6521

Posted: Thu, 22 Sep 2011

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