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PhD Student Says Studies Let Him Be ‘Friends with Geniuses’

Christopher Pitzer
Christopher Pitzer, a biomedical sciences PhD student in the UTHSC College of Graduate Health Sciences, serves as president of the Graduate Student Executive Council, the college’s student government.

When asked why he likes being a doctoral student and working in a lab at the University of Tennessee Health Science Center, Christopher Pitzer says, “I just kind of casually get to be friends with geniuses.”

Pitzer is in his final year in the molecular and translational physiology track of the Biomedical Sciences Program in the UTHSC College of Graduate Health Sciences, studying how muscle health underpins human health. He is also currently serving as president of the college’s student government, the Graduate Student Executive Council (GSEC).

Pitzer completed his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in exercise physiology at West Virginia University (WVU). While there, he not only developed a love for research and the lab environment, but he also got to know Stephen Alway, PhD, then-chair of WVU’s exercise physiology department. When Dr. Alway joined UTHSC as dean of the College of Health Professions and director of the Center for Muscle, Metabolism, and Neuropathology, Pitzer wanted to continue to learn from him while earning his doctorate.

“Dr. Alway had taken the position here at UTHSC about six months before I finished my master’s at WVU,” Pitzer says. “As I was graduating, I had this desire to continue doing research. Plus, I had known folks in Dr. Alway’s lab, he knew me pretty well, and he had some projects that aligned with my interests, so it worked out.”

For Dean Alway, it was a benefit to have a trusted, familiar face in the lab alongside him. “Chris was a strong master’s student at WVU, and I was delighted that he chose to come to UTHSC to join our lab,” he says.

While his connection to Dean Alway introduced him to UTHSC, the environment and opportunities the university offers made Pitzer’s next step a clear decision. “The sense of community I felt here among the students was palpable as soon as I stepped on campus,” he says. “That and the sort of mentorship you get from the faculty really drew me here, so it was a pretty easy choice at the end of the day.”

During his time as a PhD student, Pitzer has been a leader in several roles in the College of Graduate Health Sciences. He first served as the GSEC representative for the physiology track, saying his classmates decided he would be a good fit for the position. He took some committee appointments in the organization and then became GSEC secretary. Pitzer was then elected GSEC president, running for the position at the recommendation of the outgoing president.

“I’ve been elected to represent the student body here, but they’re all doing so much cool work and I’m lucky enough to call so many of them my friends that advocating for them and having this leadership role feels easy.”

Christopher Pitzer

As GSEC president, Pitzer serves the student body by voicing students’ needs regarding college and campus decisions. He represents the college in the university’s student government, the Student Government Association Executive Council, and provides a vision and direction for the GSEC term. His goals as president include guiding an overhaul of the thesis and dissertation process, securing an increase to graduate student stipends whenever faculty and staff get a cost-of-living pay increase, and strengthening the relationship between the students and faculty.

“I make it a point to be approachable and to be someone the students know they can reach out to with issues and know that I’m going to go present their case and advocate for them any way I can,” he says. “I’ve been elected to represent the student body here, but they’re all doing so much cool work and I’m lucky enough to call so many of them my friends that advocating for them and having this leadership role feels easy.”

While Pitzer’s work as GSEC president occupies much of his free time, his main priority as a doctoral student is his research. Pitzer’s research interest is the molecular mechanisms that maintain muscle health and lead to better health outcomes overall, focusing on exosomes­ associated with Type 2 diabetes. Exosomes mediate intercellular communication by carrying nucleic acids, proteins, lipids, and metabolites between cells.

“When studying muscle cells, we grow them in media that naturally contain exosomes. We can deplete those exosomes and replace them with exosomes from mice that have diabetes or don’t, and in comparing the outcomes of the cells, you can sort of get an idea of what those exosomes are doing to the muscle and how that’s affecting potential health outcomes down the line,” Pitzer says.

According to Dr. Alway, Pitzer’s contributions have made a difference in their lab’s work. “Chris has been thoughtful and careful in his approach to test his research ideas, and he has developed great troubleshooting skills as he worked on a new area of inquiry for our lab in extracellular vesicles. His experimental data have added to our understanding of how exosomes regulate muscle metabolism in diabetes, and this is really exciting,” he says. “Chris is well on this way to developing into a strong, independent scientist who is equipped to tackle even bigger research problems.”

Now months from graduating, Pitzer plans to continue working in a lab after completing his doctorate. He has been offered a postdoctoral position at a molecular medicine research institute affiliated with Virginia Tech that focuses on exercise as an intervention. In the more distant future, he hopes to spend as much time in the lab as possible but says he will not shy away from a leadership role, whether it is in an industry or academic setting.

“I’m just out here living the dream,” he says. “I get to do things that I’m excited about every day, and I’m just trying to keep that going.”