Mark Gillespie Reinvents Himself & Follows His Dreams
Mark Gillespie, PhD
“One of the best parts of this job is that I am able to change what I do—to sort of reinvent myself and follow my ideas and dreams,” he said.
Dr. Gillespie was drawn to pharmacology soon after entering college, when he was considering a career as a physician. “Early in my college career, I met a couple of professors who were doing work in pharmacology that I thought was very interesting,” he recalled. “They gave me jobs in their labs and I found I really enjoyed the work.”
After receiving his bachelor’s degree at the University of Kentucky (UK), Dr. Gillespie received his PhD at the university’s College of Pharmacy before moving to the University of Colorado Health Sciences Center to complete his postdoctoral fellowship at the center’s cardiovascular-pulmonary research lab.
“Lou Diamond, one of the pioneers of pulmonary mechanics measurement in small lab animals, was one of my mentors, and working with him heralded the opportunity to look at drugs in animal models in a detailed way that, until then, hadn’t been easy to do,” Dr. Gillespie said.
After completing his postdoctoral work, Dr. Gillespie returned to his alma mater, UK College of Pharmacy’s Division of Pharmacology and Experimental Therapeutics, where he spent nearly 10 years before moving to the University of South Alabama.
“Coming to the University of South Alabama was an easy choice for me,” he said. “From a professional perspective, the university has always been on the cutting-edge of pulmonary research, and has put a long list of researchers on the map.”
The city of Mobile, which is located close to the Gulf of Mexico, and offers a great arts community and a diverse population, was also a draw. “For me, it was a ‘no-brainer’ to come down to a hotbed of pulmonary research and essentially live on the beaches,” he explained.
Dr. Gillespie said that while some aspects of his work have changed during his more than two decades as a pharmacologist and department chair, others are remarkably similar to when he began his career.
“First and foremost, I’m a scientist, and although the research topics and funding environment have changed, being a scientist and working with students and postdoctoral fellows is still a great pleasure,” he said.
In the years since he earned his PhD, translational science has emerged as the primary focus of researchers around the world, he added. “In fact, the recent international emphasis on translational research is one of the reasons the ATS is becoming increasingly important to scientists like me,” Dr. Gillespie noted. “By bringing bench scientists in closer contact with physicians at the bedside, the ATS has really aided the field and moved it forward, ensuring that research remains timely and competitive.”
While noting that he has been fortunate to work in many different areas of biology during his career, Dr. Gillespie is most proud of the work he has conducted on signal transduction, which he started early in his career.
Back in the 1980s, he collaborated with Jack Olson, from the University of South Alabama College of Medicine in examining signaling pathways in pulmonary hypertension. “At that time, the concept of studying signal transduction as a pharmacological target in pulmonary hypertension was fairly new,” he recalled. According to Dr. Gillespie, they were among the first individuals to begin to look at signaling pathways as a target for intervention.”
Today, his research focuses on defining novel biological roles of oxidative injury or modification to the two cellular genomes, mitochondrial (mt) and nuclear DNA, in governing the life and death of lung cells. “We’ve found that normal signaling carries with it a targeted oxidative threat to our genomes. This finding has tremendous implications and I’m excited about the possibility that DNA repair pathways are legitimate pharmacological targets in lung diseases,” Dr. Gillespie explained.
Research in the Gillespie lab has been supported by the NIH for nearly his entire career. Most recently, the group has attracted a small business development grant, as well as other funding, to promote development of novel drugs that target mitochondrial DNA repair pathways. “Being a medical scientist has allowed me the opportunity to reinvent myself and do new things, which in turn enables me to remain excited about what I do,” he concluded. “This research in DNA damage in signaling and in disease is, I think, an interesting story.”