Prof. J. Andrew Berglund

Written by Paula Petronela Groza

Dr. J. Andrew Berglund is a professor at the University of Albany in the state of New York, USA. His scientific career is an inspirational path which shows us the importance of community and how helping each other leads all of us towards noteworthy achievements. Prof. Berglund’s career began with his PhD studies in the laboratory of Prof. Michael Rosbash, a Nobel Laureate, at Brandeis University. There, he got inspired by Dr. Nadja Abovich (one of his mentors) whose research focused on the branchpoint bridging protein (BBP in yeast, known as SF1 in mammals) in the early splicing complex. He hypothesized that RNA binding proteins, especially those containing KH domains such as BBP/SF1, could specifically recognize the branch-site of the pre-mRNA. He was able to show that the yeast and human BBP/SF1 proteins recognized their branchpoint motifs with specificity that matched their conservation in each organism. Further, he identified the amino acids controlling the RNA binding specificity of the KH domains in both yeast and humans. He recalls with joy how proud he was (and still is) regarding this significant finding that built the foundation of his successful career in research and academia. He remains grateful to his mentors in the Rosbash lab, whose support was essential for his accomplishment.

Even after starting his own laboratory, Prof. Berglund continued to let people around him inspire the direction of his research. A beautiful example that has impacted many people’s lives is an idea that Jeremy Logue, his first undergraduate student, implanted in his mind, and heart.  Dr. Berglund started his research group as an Assistant Professor at the University of Oregon and began focusing on understanding the mechanisms of pre-mRNA splicing. That was true until Jeremy joined his lab. Jeremy, now an Associate Professor at Albany Medical College himself, wanted to study myotonic dystrophy (DM), the disease that his mother was suffering from. This request triggered Dr. Berglund’s curiosity so much so that he realized his background and educational training could make a significant impact in DM research. Thus, he began focusing on toxic RNA (CUG) repeats that had been discovered to be a major part of the disease mechanism.

“It is crucial to identify the questions that get one excited to come in the lab every single day and pursue the answers to those questions.”

To this day, he continues being active in DM research, building an entire community around him, bringing together patients’ families, foundations and researchers determined to work eagerly on finding a cure for DM. Together with his group of talented trainees and staff, they are showing the world that RNA molecules could be the basis for developing effective treatments for neurodegenerative diseases. Their hard work led to the discovery of multiple classes of small molecules that reduce the levels of toxic RNAs across multiple repeat expansion diseases. For instance, they discovered that quercetin (a plant flavonol) can selectively reduce toxic RNAs in patient derived DM cell lines and in a mouse model, making them very excited for the future.

During his career, Dr. Berglund has been involved not only in research but also in the administrative structures of Academia, serving as interim dean and associate dean at the University of Oregon. These roles exposed him to different aspects of successfully training graduate students. He continues to incorporate those lessons into his trainees’ mentorship at The RNA Institute at Albany, where he currently serves as director. His prior administrative experience made him focus the mission of the RNA Institute on “training the next generation of RNA researchers in basic and translational science” with the goal of shaping strong leaders for positions in academia, industry, and other career paths. He considers that there is so much exciting RNA science to be done, and reaching out to diverse communities, making them aware of these opportunities, encouraging and supporting them to participate should be a key goal for the RNA research community. One of his priorities is making high school and college students aware that they can receive financial support to pursue advanced degrees in STEM fields. The community did not remain indifferent to his impactful contribution and awarded him the Collins Citizen Award in 2022, offered by The University of Albany Alumni Association. This award made him feel grateful and constituted “extra motivation” in pursuing his endeavors.

He strongly believes that the RNA field is making great strides towards effective treatments and cures for DM and other neuromuscular and neurodegenerative diseases. This is possible by using a range of approaches that include siRNAs, ASOs, small molecules and biologics which are showing promise as therapeutics. Thus, he encourages young scientists “to find their passion and follow it as there is no one single path to success.” And he passes on his mentor’s key advice: “it is crucial to identify the questions that get one excited to come in the lab every single day and pursue the answers to those questions.”

The biggest struggle during his career was to obtain and maintain sufficient funding to run a productive research lab. However, he stresses that scientists can’t let rejection faze them.  Further, he notes that researchers must identify strategies to diversify their funding portfolio to ensure they can move their work forward. He advises all group leaders to work in helping their trainees to obtain their ‘own’ funding via different trainee-focused fellowship opportunities.

Concerning our RNA Society Community, he fondly recalls when, as a graduate student, he presented his research in a plenary session at the RNA Society Meeting in Banff, Canada in 1997. He recalls being very nervous but the support he felt before and after his presentation made this experience a highlight of his career. He underlines that the RNA Society has managed to create a wonderful sense of community and he consistently enjoys attending RNA Society Meetings. He sees the Annual Meeting of the RNA Society as an opportunity to meet up with old friends, but also a place where you can make new ones at the same time.

Dr. Berglund can be found on Twitter at @TheRNAInstitute where you can get in contact with him to ask more about his favorite RNA, the expanded CUG repeat RNA. You can also read his favorite article published in the RNA Journal Article, a fun collaboration across 4 RNA labs (Berglund, Spitale, Swanson and Wang): “This paper is a great example of the collaborative nature of research in the RNA community with four labs coming together for this project. I believe this work spearheaded by Dr. Bubenik will be a powerful approach for probing the structures of low abundance cellular RNAs.”