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Molecular Biology

P. Justin Tortolani ’92

Spine Surgeon and Director of Spinal Research and Postgraduate Education, Union Memorial Hospital

I was truly blessed with parents who encouraged me to pursue my dreams in life and to try to find a career in something that I truly enjoyed. Even now, as career choices present themselves, I still dream and try to make decisions that will help me get closer to fulfilling those dreams. 

While it is difficult to remember exact facts regarding my decision to pursue a major in molecular biology (more than 20 years ago), we all entered Princeton with a full awareness of the senior thesis requirement. As I considered options for a major, I seem to remember thinking that it would be much more fun to conduct an experiment or test a hypothesis as a senior thesis project than to argue a point of view. This way, the thesis would represent a written account of methods and results, with the added bonus of potentially making a contribution to science. This type of project was very appealing to me. 

I was exposed to the Department of Molecular Biology for the first time in my freshman year by the captain of the Princeton lacrosse team, who was someone I respected immensely. He took the time to bring me to the lab where he was conducting his senior thesis research. The Lewis Thomas Laboratory was relatively new at that time (1988–89) and there was quite a bit of excitement in and around that beautifully designed space. I remember the building itself making a statement due to its location on campus as well as the somewhat controversial, checkerboard “Purina” facade. Inside, the relatively open floor design with lots of light seemed to foster an environment of collaboration and camaraderie among the various labs. 

Research as a springboard

Following graduation, I elected to pursue a career in medicine, and I currently practice spine surgery at Union Memorial Hospital in Baltimore, where I am the director of spinal research and postgraduate education. Our orthopedic surgery residency program maintains a close affiliation with Johns Hopkins Hospital, where I am an assistant professor on the part-time staff. In addition to taking care of patients with wide-ranging spinal conditions, I have found maintaining close contact with medical students, residents, and fellows to be particularly gratifying. 

Starting with the senior thesis at Princeton, scientific research has been a constant in my career path. As a medical student, I spent a year as a Howard Hughes Scholar at the National Institutes of Health studying molecular signaling pathways for immune cells. As a resident in orthopedic surgery at Johns Hopkins and as a fellow in spinal surgery at Emory University, I published the findings of additional scientific work, which ultimately provided a springboard into a career in academic medicine. After completion of formal medical training, I have enjoyed continued research activities in the form of clinical trials and basic science research. 

My studies at Princeton and, in particular, my thesis project and adviser, Jean Schwarzbauer, taught me several important things, which not only prepared me well for my particular career path but also continue to motivate me. First, it is more fun to learn about how we know something rather than just to know something. Second, studying something in great detail allows you to be an expert in a field, regardless of how old (or young) you may be. Although this may seem intuitive, until we dive into the research world, it is impossible to appreciate just how exciting and stimulating these truths become.