WVCTSI Investigator Spotlight
The WVCTSI Investigator Spotlight Series highlights our clinical and translational researchers and the exciting work they are doing with the institute. This series will provide an up-close look into the work WVCTSI investigators are doing every day to address the health issues facing West Virginia.
Velvet Journigan, Ph.D., Assistant Professor of Medicinal Chemistry in Marshall University School of Pharmacy and WVCTSI Research Scholar
Image courtesy of Karrie Lykins
Early in life, Velvet Journigan, Ph.D., had a penchant for organic chemistry that inspired her decision to earn a bachelor’s degree in chemistry from the University of North Carolina at Wilmington.
During that time, Dr. Journigan was exposed to the exciting world of laboratory-based research. She was also introduced to the field of medicinal chemistry, a cross-disciplinary field that links organic chemistry with drug discovery and allows for collaboration with other scientists in researching and developing new therapeutics.
Moved by these newly developed passions, Dr. Journigan started contemplating her next move and decided to pursue a Ph.D. degree in medicinal chemistry from the University of Mississippi.
“After my Ph.D. with Dr. Christopher McCurdy, I did an industrial postdoc in the laboratory of Dr. Nurulain Zaveri at Astraea Therapeutics (Mountain View, CA),” Dr. Journigan said. “These experiences cemented a lifelong passion for drug discovery.”
Today, in her capacity as an assistant professor of medicinal chemistry in the Marshall University School of Pharmacy, Dr. Journigan’s quest for advancing this field is unflagging.
With an expertise that spans the early drug discovery process and initial preclinical development, with emphases on synthetic medicinal chemistry, and ligand- and structure-based drug design, Dr. Journigan continues to build her translational research tool kit with a focus on pain. Her project, “Somatosensory-targeting Probes for Neuropathic Pain,” aims to develop a series of Transient Receptor Potential Melastatin 8 (TRPM8) antagonists similar to the natural product menthol. The goal of her laboratory is to use these compounds as an innovative approach to control somatosensory responses to chemotherapy pain.
“We hope to extend our work on TRPM8 to other sensory neuropathies such as chronic neuropathic pain to discover antinociceptive (pain-relieving) drugs,” she said.
With viable career options, Dr. Journigan knew that academia and research were her calling to be on the leading edge of the field.
“As a medicinal chemist, striving to contribute to human health as a scientist and educator is a major motivator for me,” Dr. Journigan said. “One of the best aspects of performing bench research is the excitement when target molecules synthesized in the lab are active and tell a story, and on a bigger scale, the possibilities that these compounds could contribute to and push the TRPM8 field forward.”
A firm believer in the power of collaboration, Dr. Journigan learned it is of paramount importance to be proactive and seek challenges. As a WVCTSI Research Scholar, she found immense support from the institute’s wide array of professional development opportunities including grant writing groups and proposal development guidance, editorial services for manuscripts; and career development advice, especially as an early career researcher.
“Being a WVCTSI Research Scholar allows my lab to focus on the design, synthesis and testing of our next chemical series of TRPM8 analogs,” she said. “These analogs are exciting because they aim to test a very interesting hypothesis that we generated based on the recent cryo-electron microscopy (cryo-EM) structures of TRPM8. We are also excited to learn how to test our compounds in vitro using calcium flux techniques, with co-mentor Dr. Sven-Eric Jordt, associate professor at Duke University’s Department of Anesthesiology. This training opportunity will allow us to test our ligands and expand the capabilities of my lab.”
In addition to her professional accomplishments, Dr. Journigan has been recently accepted into the 2021 National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) Diversity Scholars Network (NDSN) program that aims to help scholars build a sustainable independent research career. The NDSN is a rigorous and comprehensive development program focused on grantsmanship and aimed at improving the funding success of underrepresented early-stage investigators conducting substance abuse and addiction research.
For those considering a similar career path, Dr. Journigan has the following advice.
“To thrive in research, you have to be both creative and persistent, and go where others are not," Dr. Journigan said. "Developing an appreciation and working knowledge of pharmacology is an important skill set for a chemist that cannot be over-emphasized and helps drive projects forward.”
Dr. Journigan also stresses that work-life balance is crucial to prevent burnout. To her, that means decompressing by spending time with her husband and two golden retrievers!