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Faculty Spotlight: Craig Bennett, PhD

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Twenty years ago, Craig Bennett, PhD was a molecular biologist studying the Queensland fruit fly in his native Australia. Now he’s one of the newest members of our faculty. In this Faculty Spotlight interview, Bennett talks about the path that led him to the study of the genetics of neurodegenerative diseases, what he’ll be doing as part of the incoming lab of Al La Spada, MD, PhD, and why the weather in Durham is closer to that of Sydney, Australia than you might think.

Welcome to the Duke Department of Neurology! What have you been up to in time here so far?
Since arriving, I’ve been familiarizing myself with the Duke system, making contacts and getting the lab set-up. This has included practical bench based set-up, helping with animal and human subject protocols; but more so, it has meant reaching out and getting to know my new colleagues. This process has been helped by the general friendliness of everybody as well as the excellent on-boarding process here at Duke.

You’ll be part of the incoming team of Al La Spada. What will your role be within this laboratory?
Ours is a relatively large group and there are many aspects to our work. We primarily use techniques of genetics, cell biology and small animal models to study pathways of neuron degeneration. Our focus is broad as we study ataxias, motor neuron disease, Huntington’s disease and Parkinsonism. My specific area of research focuses on the inherited forms of motor neuron disease (MND), Lou Gehrig’s disease, or amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS).

How did you first get interested in molecular genetics and neuroscience? What interests you the most about each of these specialties?
When I first moved from Sydney, Australia to the University of Washington (UW) in 1998 I was a molecular biologist with a background in genetics applications to basic, small animal model questions. I had originally studied the Queensland fruit fly, not Drosophila, but a large, attractive, real-world pest. But at UW, which has a history of excellent training in human genetics, I became immersed in the positional cloning, electrophysiology and neurology of the Charcot-Marie-Tooth (CMT) inherited peripheral neuropathies. These are a unique set of nerve disorders that are completely inherited. It was logical that CMT was historically divided into type 1 demyelinating, and type 2 axonal, based on electrophysiology findings. But later, as the 40 or so genes were discovered that cause the many variants of CMT, it was very interesting to see the lines along with genotype-phenotype correlation separated. From here it was an easy transition from studying interesting disorders that blurred the lines between CMT neuropathy and MND, to studying inherited forms of pure motor neuron disease.

What do you miss the most about your former home of San Diego? What’s been the most pleasant surprise about Durham and North Carolina?
San Diego represented a playground for those who enjoy the outdoor life as the weather is moderate year round. For me it fun to be able to play tennis in various leagues or purely social matches. Also, the ocean was right there to venture a swim or snorkel when conditions were just right. When I arrived in Durham, I was able to unpack my tennis racket no problem, but trying a few games in the summer humidity resulted in a lather of sweat before the warm up was even over. But I was pleasantly surprised but how interesting the weather is here in Durham. Very quickly the high heat of mid-summer gave way to really pleasant days, interspersed with short heavy rains that often included lightning shows that reminded me more of Sydney summers. One of the most pleasant surprises was that moving into the neighborhood where we found a home (north of the University), everyone has been just so friendly and welcoming.

What passions or hobbies do you have outside of the Department?
My small family of wife and 15-year-old son are my true grounding. We enjoy doing everything together and travel is a big part of that. We look forward to exploring many of the destinations that can be easily reached by car including the mountains and coastal beaches. Time permitting, travel to locations further afield may now include scuba diving options as my son was recently SSI certified before we left California. The photo included shows me enjoying myself while having dinner while visiting friends in Boston.

Bennett, right, catches up with a friend in Boston before his arrival in Durham this August.