Focus on Postdoctoral Fellow: Justin Hill, MD
“We can get it right.” That’s the motto of Justin Hill, MD, postdoctoral researcher in the lab of Dr. David Greenberg. As a runner and sports fan, he often uses sports analogies. “We neuroscientists have to remember that we got into this game to fix the brain, not just make incremental improvements.” He laughed as he acknowledged that many in his field consider his views to be naive: that brain tissue damaged by stroke, infection, or trauma can actually be restored and retrained to resume normal functioning. The mainstream view is that damaged brain tissue cannot be regenerated. “I would agree that it is a complex problem, but that just means it probably requires a complex solution,” he said.
Prior to coming to the Buck Institute in spring 2009, Dr. Hill worked for four years at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center as a resident in neurology. Medicine is in his family. When he was a kid living in South Carolina, he would tag along with his father, an orthopedic surgeon, on his rounds. Occasionally, he would help out, setting bones, and once he even removed a Ginsu knife from a man’s foot. Head trauma cases bothered him the most.
While in residency, he became frustrated at the focus on diagnoses of nervous system injuries. “Diagnosis is not the satisfying end-point for clinical interaction. Patients would be diagnosed with some long-term problem, but the treatment would always fall short.” He decided to go into research. Dr. Hill had read of Dr. Greenberg’s work and admired his approach to treating the complete brain – which consists of many cell types, not just neurons. He came to the Buck to study brain repair, focusing on stroke-damaged brains as a model. “The body has a limited toolbox to address brain damage – whether from stroke, infection, blunt trauma, or neurodegeneration,” he explained. “Stroke is a relatively simple model – it’s just one problem to fix, unlike Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s which have indeterminate causes.” His goal is to bring multiple medical disciplines together – to run a full-out defensive blitz on brain damage. He says of his work, “I feel I am doing clinical work. Therapeutics usually are developed in the lab, not in the clinic. I look forward to going back to the clinic once I have a therapeutic worth testing.”
When he’s not busy in the lab, Dr. Hill works fervently on the problem of conserving the world’s dwindling rainforests, which lose an area the size of England every year to development and logging. He has attended over 20 international conferences, bringing the same methodical but passionate focus to the issue as his work on stroke. “Conservationists have to use every play in the book – no one strategy will protect the hotbed of global biodiversity,” he explained. In his daily life, Dr. Hill practices what he calls “San Francisco sanity.” He eats locally grown, seasonal, organic foods. He bikes and runs barefoot for fitness (up the slopes of Mount Tamalpais, no less), but mostly he enjoys the nap he takes in the sun once he gets to the top.