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Faculty Spotlight - Justin Legleiter

Associate Professor

Justin Legleiter, PhD

C. Eugene Bennett Department of Chemistry

I grew up in a small college town in northwestern Kansas, Hays. While I grew up in town, both of my sets of grandparents were farmers. I have had broad interests and curiosity, which resulted in my participation in a number of activities. For example, I lettered in basketball, football, track, debate, and forensics in high school. I participated in other academic activities like math relays and model UN.  For someone with no musical or acting talent, I was even in a musical. I had some great teachers in high school. One in particular, Mr. Brull, approached me to see if I would be interested in performing scientific research and participating in the Kansas Junior Academy of Science (KJAS). I decided to try it. With Mr. Brull working with me individually, I set out on my first research project. As there was quite a bit of popular press about holes in the ozone layer and my family’s background was wheat farming, I designed a study to determine how enhanced exposure to UV radiation would affect the early stage of wheat growth. I presented my research findings at the regional meeting of KJAS, which required a written and oral report. I received high enough scores from the faculty judges to advance to the state meeting. At the state meeting, I won the top award in the small high school division. This experience is what first got me thinking of a career in research, and Mr. Brull’s mentoring and interest in me really set me on my career path.

Next, I attended Murray State University (Murray, KY), where I majored in Chemistry and was a member of their football team. While at Murray, I met my future wife, Holly, and I worked in the lab of Professor Harry Fannin using inductively coupled plasma spectroscopy to study bio-accumulation of metals in a fresh water protozoan, p. magnifica. The goal of the research project was to determine if we could use these protozoan colonies that grew all over the local lakes for environmental monitoring for metal contamination. Unfortunately, this particular project was not very successful as the colonies acted more like a sieve than an accumulator of metal.

Without a clear idea of the type of research I really wanted to do, I went on to pursue a PhD in Chemistry at Carnegie Mellon University (Pittsburgh, PA). Even though I had participated in a number of research projects in high school and college, I didn’t have a research problem that really excited me yet. Luckily for me, there was a new faculty member at CMU, Dr. Tomasz Kowalewski. I found his research on the self-organization of macromolecules, with the emphasis on the role that it can play in new nanostructured materials, and I became his first graduate student. While I initially thought I’d be studying synthetic polymeric materials, I was presented with an opportunity to study the physicochemical properties of the self-assembly of the β-amyloid peptide and other relevant biological macromolecules (i.e. lipoproteins, lipid bilayers, anti-Aβ antibodies) associated with Alzheimer’s disease. The other half of my dissertation involved instrument/technique development of atomic force microscopy in both air and fluids, especially the use of higher harmonic in processing signals and the use of tip acceleration to study local mechanical/chemical properties at the nanoscale, such as modulus and local adhesion. These studies led to the development of scanning probe acceleration microscopy (SPAM). To me, graduate school was the most amazing time, mostly because I had such a great mentor in Dr. Kowalewski.

My formal training thus far had been in Chemistry, material sciences, and nanoscale physics. However, my research interests had led me to biophysical studies of proteins associated with neurodegenerative disease. To pursue this further, I then spent three years at the Gladstone Institute of Neurological Disease at the University of California, San Francisco as a postdoctoral fellow in the lab of Dr. Paul Muchowski. There, I received additional training in neurology and focused on the structural analysis of aggregates formed by mutant huntingtin fragments with expanded polyglutamine domains implicated in Huntington’s disease. I also worked to understand the potential of molecular chaperones, such as Hsp70 and Hsp40, and anti-htt antibodies to modulate the formation and stability of assemblies formed by mutant htt fragments. The GIND was an entire institute dedicated to understanding and curing neurodegenerative disorders, and as a result, I was able to collaborate on a number of other projects as well

In August of 2008, I started at West Virginia University as an assistant professor in the C. Eugene Bennett Department of Chemistry. The major research goal of my laboratory is to understand the molecular mechanisms that underlie neurodegenerative disorders associated with protein misfolding and aggregation, with a focus on Alzheimer’s disease (AD) and Huntington’s disease. In particular, we are interested in the potential role cellular and subcellular surfaces may play in these events. In particular, we have made some key insights into how amyloid-forming proteins interact with and damage lipid membranes. Since moving to WVU, two dogs and two daughters have joined my family. In my spare time I enjoy cooking, baking, gardening, and science fiction.

Legleiter Lab