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From pharmacology to neuroscience: Building from a Vanderbilt foundation

Back to Vestigo Issue 3

By Brett Nabit and Nick Petersen

Headshot of Andrew Tapper, who is wearing a checkered dress shirt.

The career of Andrew Tapper, PhD’01, after graduating from the Department of Pharmacology at Vanderbilt, exemplifies how modern, collaborative and interdisciplinary basic science research

benefits society and trainees alike. Now serving as director of the Brudnick Neuropsychiatric Research Institute at the University of Massachusetts Chan Medical School, Tapper reflects on how starting his scientific training at Vanderbilt guides his mentoring styles for young faculty and trainees.


Tell us about your position at the University of Massachusetts Medical School.

I’m a professor in the neurobiology department and I’m the director of the BNRI. I run a basic neuroscience lab that is working to understand the neurobiology of addiction. My lab uses mouse models to study the neuronal circuits and molecular mechanisms that underlie addiction and addiction-associated behaviors, including anxiety, depression, and novelty seeking.


How do you balance your time between your roles?

I spend more time running my lab than anything else. My position as the BNRI director involves helping other faculty in any way I can, whether it be giving advice about navigating promotion, providing feedback on grant applications, or editing manuscripts. It takes up some time, and it’s very different from running a lab but it’s also very rewarding. I really enjoy helping junior faculty try to achieve their goals.


How did your graduate training at Vanderbilt through the IGP and the Department of Pharmacology set the tone for your career?

My time at Vanderbilt set the foundation for everything. What I loved about the pharmacology department was that they ensure that you not only are an expert on your project in the lab, but also that you acquire comprehensive foundational knowledge in general pharmacology and physiology, which is something I use to this day. It was and is a very unique training environment. As a [principal investigator], I use Vanderbilt’s model of combining interdisciplinary research methods and cutting-edge technologies to answer complex scientific questions. My mentoring approach is no different; I encourage students to find their own unique niche of interests with regards to research strategies, and, importantly, what they want to do after their graduate training. I have found that keeping an open-door policy in the lab facilitates development of graduate trainees and young faculty alike.


Tell us about your career path so far.

I’ve had a very traditional academic path. I defended my thesis and then went straight into an academic postdoc at [the California Institute of Technology]. Caltech was where I was exposed to neuroscience and also really got into the idea of trying to understand addiction and the effects of chronic drug use on circuits that drive addiction-related behavior. That focus led into my current position at UMass.

I was fortunate enough in my graduate career and also my postdoc career to have really great mentors. At Vanderbilt, I worked with Al George. As a postdoc, I worked with Henry Lester. Both were incredible mentors. They were very different, but also very complementary in how they approached science. I think that really helped shape my path when I started my own lab.


What are some of your areas of focus as director of the BNRI?

One of the initiatives that I am helping to advance is incorporating modern neuroscience approaches into the BNRI. Especially over the last few decades, there has been constant, rapid development of new tools for neuroscience research that can help you answer questions in the most direct way possible. I bring in and pilot state-of-the-art technologies that could benefit the group, and then also help others incorporate those tools into their research. Beyond that, I strive to support the faculty. It always helps to have people read your grant application, read your manuscripts, provide feedback, and so on, to foster an environment of collaboration and open science—things I learned first at Vanderbilt.


Do you have any advice for trainees?

There are a lot of career paths now for trainees that do not follow the traditional academic career path. My primary advice is to take that into account and do something that you truly love—something that makes you happy. Also, if you want to do a postdoc, take the time to find a lab environment that fits your needs and do not be afraid to change fields from your graduate work to broaden your horizons. That will set the stage for your career—just as starting my training at Vanderbilt set the stage for mine!