"That's what I love about science. You are able to take an important question and approach it in your own unique way ... It can be a lot of fun."
Jonathan Grima named to Forbes 30 under 30
When Jonathan Grima, Rochester ’11, says he studies traffic jams, it’s not what you think. You see, Jonathan, a postdoctoral fellow at Johns Hopkins University, researches what he calls traffic jams in brain cells. His work to study and fight neurodegenerative diseases such as Huntington’s disease, ALS, and Alzheimer’s has led to groundbreaking discoveries. It also landed him on Forbes’ 2019 30 Under 30 list.
Each year, Forbes identifies a list of trailblazers in 20 different industries (30 people in each industry for a total of 600 honorees) and recognizes them as the best and brightest upcoming professionals. After being anonymously nominated, answering a long list of questions, and submitting a robust packet of materials and references, the Delta Upsilon alumnus was named as one of this year’s honorees in science.
“I was beyond shocked when I found out,” Jonathan said. “I was not expecting to be selected. It has been a lot of hard work and has been a long journey. … It is very fulfilling and really means a lot to me and to my family.”
As a first-generation American and college student, for Jonathan, this recognition—along with the many others he’s received—is a testament to the power of family, perseverance and having passion for your work. Because Jonathan’s path to where he is today was not exactly what you may describe as expected.
Jonathan’s parents migrated to New York City from the island of Malta before starting their family and worked tirelessly to provide for themselves and their future children. The handyman and maid did not have a lot of money but wanted to provide their children with more possibilities than they were given. Jonathan was taught to work hard, be kind to others and give back to society. It wasn’t until his junior year in high school that Jonathan even imagined he would be able to go to college. So, not even 15 years later, to be a postdoctoral fellow being recognized by Forbes is somewhat of a dream.
Just as remarkable is how Jonathan got into neuroscience in the first place. When he started high school, it appeared he would have a career in the arts, not the sciences. Interestingly enough, Jonathan attended the famous Fiorello H. LaGuardia High School of Music & Art and Performing Arts with a focus on theatre. Known to many as the school from “Fame,” LaGuardia provides a traditional high school curriculum while also giving those accepted the opportunity to study and train in a specific area of the arts. Here is where Jonathan’s interest in psychology and the brain began. As a theatre student, one of his favorite things was studying his characters and figuring out why they would act they way they do.
“I know this might sound odd, but when you are studying different characters—a character who is addicted to drugs or a character who just broke up with his girlfriend—it’s fascinating being able to go into their thought processes and think about the psychology behind their actions,” Jonathan said.
This interest in human behavior led Jonathan to graduate from LaGuardia and start at the University of Rochester as a psychology major. From those classes, he was introduced to neuroscience. Learning more about this field, coupled with losing his grandfather to dementia, is what then sparked Jonathan's current career trajectory. Jonathan graduated from Rochester in 2011 with a bachelor’s degree in neuroscience and from Johns Hopkins University in 2018 with a doctorate in neuroscience.
Today, Jonathan works with a team of scientists at Johns Hopkins to research neurodegeneration, its causes and possible treatments. His work has helped develop the Nuclear Pore Hypothesis of neurodegeneration. This hypothesis suggests that nuclear pore complexes manage the trafficking of macromolecules and proteins within cells, but when traffic jams occur, it can cause cells to die and lead to neurodegenerative conditions such as ALS, Huntington’s disease, dementia and more.
“What we are trying to do is figure out ways we can fix these clogs—these traffic jams—and allow this information flow to occur again,” Jonathan said. “We think that might help in saving these cells from dying. But a lot more work needs to be done.”
At Johns Hopkins, Jonathan is mentored by some of the biggest names in the field of neuroscience: Dr. Jeffrey Rothstein, whose research led to the first successful FDA-approved drug to alter neurodegeneration in ALS, and Dr. Solomon Snyder, the namesake of Johns Hopkins' neurology center whose research led to the discovery of opioid receptors. Together with the Johns Hopkins team, Jonathan’s research continues to lead to new drug targets and compounds to treat neurodegenerative diseases. It is for this work that Jonathan was honored by Forbes.
Though extremely humbled by the 30 under 30 honor, Jonathan is unsure how, or if, it will affect his career. He believes a better determinant for success is remaining passionate and excited about his work. If that happens, he knows it will have a direct impact on the quality of his work, his ability to gain more funding and, hopefully, change lives.
“My end goal is to continue to help contribute and help others in discovering new treatments for these devastating illnesses,” Jonathan said. “As long as I am passionate about what I am doing—and I still am, thankfully—I think that’s all that matters. The rest will speak for itself.”
Part of Jonathan’s passion for science is creativity. Just as it played a role in his passion for theatre, creativity allows Jonathan to start with a problem or idea and turn it into something meaningful and grand.
“The creativity that you get from being able to put on a play, for instance, I can definitely see that in the lab,” Jonathan said. “That’s what I love so much about science. You are able to take an important question and approach it in your own unique way using all sorts of tools that are at your disposal. It can be a lot of fun.”
That type of passion is what Jonathan hopes anyone reading his story understands and strives for. Whether it is solving neurological traffic jams, traffic jams with cars or something else, he believes one should find what excites them and pursue it passionately.
“If you are enthusiastic and passionate about whatever it is that you are doing, the rest will fall into place,” he said.
Just listening to Jonathan speak about the passion for his work, one thing is clear: the Forbes 30 under 30 recognition is just the beginning.