Under the Lens: Dan Applegate

"I’ve mentored many undergrads during my time here at UIC and it’s always really rewarding to see your students succeed."

"I’ve mentored many undergrads during my time here at UIC and it’s always really rewarding to see your students succeed."


In the biology department at UIC Dan Applegate is known for his dedication to teaching and researching the hairless creature, the naked mole rat. I had the pleasure of interviewing Dan about his path to joining the neurobiology PhD program and how that led him to study how naked mole rats survive in conditions most mammals perish in. Dan focuses specifically on how the brain and heart respond and recover in low levels of oxygen. With a recent publication in the journal of Science and plans to complete his third Iron Man race in the next year, read on to find out what makes Dan tick! 

10 years ago, today, what were you doing?
I was finishing my junior year of college, getting ready to do bat research through an internship with the Iowa Department of Natural Resources (IDNR). I looked at roosting behaviors of little brown bats in barns and trees. The state wanted to put new roadways in and we were studying whether or not this would disrupt the bats natural habitat. Our findings prevented trees inhabited by the bats from being knocked down and the state had to redirect the highways.

How did you decide you wanted to be a PhD student?
I enjoyed teaching in undergrad but was also fascinated with research, so I wanted to pursue a career that would allow me to do both. After reading some of Thom Park’s publications on the moustache bat I came and visited his lab. I found out he no longer worked on bats but instead was focusing on the naked mole rat. I did a rotation in his lab and the rest is history!

What are your post PhD plans?
I want to get out of the Midwest. I’d really like to find a job that’s closer to the beach or the mountains. I’m looking for a post-doc position at a major university.

You work on one of the most fascinating creatures, the naked mole rat. Can you describe your research to us as if you were describing it to your grandma? 
When a human has a heart attack or a stroke, the first thing that dies due to lack of oxygen is the brain cells. This can cause effects such as memory loss or paralysis. Soon after our hearts, kidneys, and lungs run out of energy and begin to die. Animals like bats and naked mole rats survive in environments with very low oxygen, so low that humans couldn’t survive. Overtime these animals have developed a way to utilize an alternative energy source. My research focuses on how this unique pathway works in hopes of someday applying it to humans.

Why do you think your research is interesting?
I can surgically implant a wire into certain parts of the brain, like the hippocampus, which is required for memory formation. By doing this I can see how the brain responds to low oxygen, movement, and sleep. In the absence of oxygen mice show a complete loss of brain activity, whereas naked mole rats only show a temporary reduction. Their brain goes into a suspended state that can be rescued following re-exposure to oxygen!

Why is your research necessary?
One of the interesting things about naked mole rats is that they are insensitive to inflammatory and chemical pain but they do respond to acute pain. In addition to the hypoxia experiments I’ve also been looking at arthritis in the naked mole rat, and we’ve found that they have significantly less pain than their mouse counterparts following loss of cartilage. This is yet another unique adaptation of the naked mole rat, which could potentially provide insights into human pain management.

What do you love most about being a PhD student?
I really like being able to collaborate on multiple projects, which makes every day different.

What’s a “best moment” in the lab that you’d like to share?
Our paper on fructose as an alternative energy pathway in the naked mole rat getting accepted into Science recently was really exciting!

Can you describe how you helped or have been helped someone else in a research related project?
Another pretty great day in the lab was when I taught my undergrad, Celeena Remmers, how to surgically implant wires into the brain. I’ve mentored many undergrads during my time here at UIC and it’s always really rewarding to see your students succeed. 

What do you dislike most about being a PhD student?
Feeling guilty about taking time off. I feel like a PhD is a race to get done. We’re all allowed to take time off but it just slows you down in the end.

What challenges do you think students face in PhD programs?
I think that teaching is very rewarding and UIC graduate students have a leg up on teaching, but it is very time consuming.

What advice do you have for other PhD students?
Have a five-minute presentation of your research ready, so you’re always staying up on everything. Last week Chicago hosted the experimental biology conference, and I was able to talk to a number of professors that visited our lab using my most recent data because I had it all condensed into a quick power point.

What do you do when you’re not doing research?
I’m training for my next Iron Man (will be my 3rd!). My wife and I love eating cheese and drinking nice wine, taking trips to Michigan, going to concerts, and visiting family and friends. We recently saw Garth Brooks in Champaign/Urbana.

What’s your favorite TV show?
Timeless (NBC). The main characters go back in time to specific events in history like the Hindenburg and The Chicago World’s Fair. They prevent the antagonist from changing history. I think it would be fascinating to go back in time, especially to the 1920’s, and experience history first hand.

Last non-science heavy book you’ve read?
The girl on the train (read the book, don’t watch the movie).

Is there a place that you frequent in Chicago?
I always make a point to stop at The Billy Goat Tavern on Michigan Ave. 

Favorite restaurant in Chicago?
Grand Lux! I also love myself some Lou’s deep dish pizza. 

If you weren’t a PhD student, what would you be doing?
Farming and owning my own brewery!