Department of Pharmacology neuroscience researcher committed to treating brain illnesses

David Morilak, PhD

David Morilak, PhD,  Quincy and Estine Lee endowed chair and professor in the Department of  Pharmacology and director of the Center for Biomedical Neuroscience in the Joe R. and Teresa Lozano Long School of Medicine, has long been fascinated by brain health.

“One day in high school health class, we watched a movie on mental health and I was captivated by the interview with a person with schizophrenia,” Morilak said.  “I simply could not grasp how one could be so disconnected from the experience of reality that everyone else perceives, even to the point of not having a coherent sense of their own self.”

Morilak graduated from Ohio’s Muskingum College and obtained advanced degrees in neuroscience/psychology from Princeton.  He then began his postdoctoral fellowship training in Australia then worked as a postdoctoral research associate in molecular neurobiology at Stanford University’s Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences.

“My time at Princeton, where I did my PhD work under the mentorship of Barry Jacobs, PhD, cemented my tendency to extend myself into new territories and get outside my comfort zone,” Morilak shared.  “Barry had made his name recording the electrical activity of single serotonin neurons during behavior. It was a large lab, and many people were there to do that, so I decided to try something else – recording noradrenergic neurons in the locus coeruleus.

“For technical reasons,” Morilak continued, “this was a much more challenging undertaking, but as I soon learned, a much more dynamic and exciting subject. These neurons led me to study stress and stress-induced changes in brain state and behavior. This led to a post-doc in Australia studying autonomic regulation with John Chalmers, AC, FAA, FAHMS, at Flinders University Medical Centre in Adelaide.  I then did a second post-doc at Stanford with Roland Ciaranello, MD, to learn what I could about the rapidly emerging field of molecular neurobiology at one of the best and most challenging places to do so.”

Path to UT Health San Antonio

Dr. Morilak considers his coming to UT Health San Antonio a combination of luck and being prepared to take advantage of an opportunity when it presented itself. “My post-doc advisor at Stanford was a prominent member of the ACNP (American College of Neuropsychopharmacology). He was to speak in the presidential symposium at the upcoming European Neuropsychopharmacology meeting in Malaga, Spain, a panel that would feature leaders in American neuropsychopharmacology research. At the last minute, he had to cancel, and he wanted me to fill in. He handed me tickets, introduced me on the phone to the president of the ACNP, and in 48 hours, I landed in Spain.

That evening, we had a pre-symposium dinner meeting of our panel, which included some of the most prominent and powerful researchers and thought leaders in the field, including Alan Frazer, PhD, who had just accepted the position to become chair of the Department of Pharmacology at UT Health San Antonio. Before I left Spain, Alan invited me to send him a CV, and I became the first open recruit into his new department.”

Center for Biomedical Neuroscience at the Long School of Medicine

“When I arrived in 1994, I was one of only four neuroscientists on campus. Since then, the Center for Biomedical Neuroscience, formed in 2002, has grown and thrived, now with over 125 members in 19 departments, five institutes and centers, and all six schools. Our graduate program in Neuroscience is recognized around the country as among the best, and our faculty occupy positions of professional leadership in their respective areas of expertise and the field of neuroscience in general.”

Morilak believes that one of the most important things educators can do is inspire students to appreciate knowledge for knowledge’s sake. He feels that you never know when a new fact might become important to you, so learning is a skill to be constantly practiced so that you can be ready when it is relevant, contrary to the transactional mentality that seems prevalent today. “When I teach, I try to let my natural enthusiasm show. I also try to put things into an evolutionary context – biology is not stagnant; it is constantly changing, and so are we as humans, but also as scientists and students,” Morilak shared. “Overcoming serious illnesses of the brain will improve the human condition immeasurably. The future of neuroscience research is exciting and inspiring, and I look forward to continuing my part in it, both in my research and in training the next generation.”

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