Jonathan Nelson is fascinated by a contradiction built right into our genes: Why are our bodies programmed to work both for us and against us?
A bewitching question, and the Longview native, 28, hopes his search for answers will someday result in medication to treat strokes.
The 2003 R.A. Long High School graduate, who on April 3 successfully defended his Ph.D dissertation in genetics at Oregon Health & Science University, explored a DNA mutation that makes some people far less at risk for strokes than others.
“There are these (DNA) molecules in you that tell you who you are and that have the power to both hurt you and heal you,” he said in an interview on campus last week. “What is it about this mutation that is protective, how can we use it to heal people, and can we turn that into a drug?”
He performed his research in the evolving field of functional genomics in the Department of Anesthesiology and Perioperative Medicine at OHSU.
Science has always fascinated Nelson, the son of Longview attorney David Nelson and nurse practitioner Rebekah Nelson. He credits Bill Ofstun, his ninth-grade science teacher at R.A. Long, for first suggesting genetics to him. Nelson said Ofstun encouraged him to apply for an internship in genetic engineering in Portland. He wasn’t chosen, but the seed had been planted.
Ofstun was pleased to learn of his role in Nelson’s career path.
“This tells me it is not always the fancy lesson plans, the cool labs or the exciting projects that have the greatest impact on our students,” he said. “Sometimes (it is) the short personal conversations that are most profound.”
Nelson attended Kessler Elementary, Monticello Middle School, R.A. Long and Lower Columbia College Running Start. Among his teacher/mentors he lists Mike McElliott (eighth-grade English), Jan McIntyre (freshman English and senior project) and Adam Wolfer (LCC science).
“His teachers knew that Jon would do something intellectual and creative with his life,” McElliott recalled. “He was that kind of kid. Jon was highly motivated and eager to learn. He was always exploring new ideas, sometimes to the detriment of the project or homework or reading that was assigned.”
McIntyre said Nelson “wiggled his way into my heart because he challenged me, always politely and in a good way. He challenged my views and expectations, asking the ‘why’ questions instead of the ‘How many points is it worth?’”
Wolfer said Nelson was like that in his organic chemistry class, too.
“He was one of those students who always wanted to go behind the curtain and find out what’s really happening in science,” he said.
As much as he loves science, Nelson said music, arts and English classes — including his R.A. Long senior project, “How did RAL teach students the value of character?” — played a more important role than science in earning his doctorate.
“Science education is memorization ... it’s like learning a new language, a new vocabulary, and I think that’s really good,” he said, but the arts taught him critical thinking and reasoning.
“I think that’s lost on a lot of people,” he said. “They think you’ve got to solve problems (in science). ... But as Ph.D. students, there isn’t an answer. You have to figure it out on your own. That’s like the arts. When you read a book and write a book report, someone isn’t going to tell you if you’re right or wrong.”
His life hasn’t been one success after another. He said he made a huge mistake enrolling in Running Start as a junior. The program allows students to take LCC courses while in high school. Although he did so because he wanted more rigorous courses, he missed out on high school social experiences and still feels disconnected from his classmates.
“I tried to live in both worlds,” he said. “I was in band and did varsity athletics while in Running Start,” but afternoon science labs conflicted with sports. “My grades suffered, my maturity suffered and my life suffered.”
His struggle continued during his scientific studies at the University of Washington.
“Part of it was going from being a big person in a small pond in Longview to being a small person in a big pond at UW,” he said. “I realized I wasn’t on par with what I thought I was, and it was really discouraging. I felt lost. I didn’t know what I wanted to do.”
He found his focus when he was accepted for an international science exchange program through the UW and the University of Lund in Sweden, where his family has roots. While there, he volunteered to work with a favorite professor in his genetics lab.
“So for a year I worked in DNA,” he said. “It was my first experience with genetics and my first hands-on experience doing research.”
He was hooked. He continued researching genetic science at UW, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in 2007 with a double major in biochemistry and biology. The summer between UW and OHSU he was a research technician at Longview’s only genetics lab, the Abernathy Fish Technology Center.
“I’ve worked in labs at UW with amazing equipment. Then I go to this lab in Longview — and there’s a million dollars of equipment there!” he said. “And they’re doing amazing genetics work tracking the fish populations and seeing how healthy they are.”
He said studying genetics has made him realize “how much more similar we are as humans rather than being different. Perhaps even stronger than that, I appreciate how similar we are to other organisms. We all are made from the same chemicals, our cells are incredibly similar, and oftentimes we share similar genes with even very distantly related organisms, such as bacteria.”
It has also has deepened his faith.
“It makes me less likely to believe that life was created by chance,” he said. “While I’m convinced that evolution is a current driving force in shaping who we are and who we have been, studying genetics has enhanced my faith in a creator.”
Nelson loves Longview and wishes he could continue living here so he could mentor students. Portland teens have so many more mentoring opportunities than Longview kids because of their proximity to OHSU and other higher-education centers, he said. And because the job opportunities here are limited, many Longview natives (like himself) don’t come back after leaving for college, even if they want to.
“I strongly believe in a sense of community because I lost that when I was in high school,” he said. “I feel sorrow that my career path won’t allow me to live in Longview. It will take me to other places. Based on what I want to do, I’ll live in a big city that has medical research opportunities.”
He’ll remain in the Portland area for the next two years at least while his wife, Kaity, who’s Canadian, finishes her master’s in counseling education at Portland State University.
“I’m looking for opportunities to stay at OHSU for two years,” he said. “I find out Monday if I got a job I applied for” at Knight Cardiovascular Institute researching heart health.
“After Kaity graduates, we’re talking about going to Sweden,” he said. He’s open to options, but whatever he does, he’d like to continue mentoring young people.
“My wife and I have talked that maybe it would be a good thing for me to be a high school teacher,” he said. “Maybe I’d be the most overqualified teacher ever, but I feel passionate about mentorship and teaching.”
Meanwhile, other scientists are continuing Nelson’s research into the stroke drug, he said. Theoretically, the yet-to-be-found drug would reduce brain damage after a stroke by mimicking the effect of the protective DNA mutation, he said.
“My guess is that finding a drug is years away,” Nelson said, “and it would be years of animal testing of the compound before it would enter human clinical trials.”