Jefferson Kinney’s multiple titles at UNLV are a mouthful. He started his UNLV career as a psychology professor in 2007 and since became the founding chair of the department of brain health in the School of Integrated Health Sciences, director of the Translational Biomarker Discovery Laboratory, and the first endowed chair of Chambers-Grundy Center for Transformative Neuroscience. But all that is a sign of his extensive work as part of the team collaborating to expand UNLV’s neuroscience research programs.
The Chambers-Grundy Center provides research and learning opportunities regarding the study of drug development for Alzheimer's disease and other brain disorders. It includes a clinical trials observatory for tracking new treatments, trial designs, and biomarkers in clinical trials for neurodegenerative disorders.
What inspired you to get into your field?
I was told as a kid that I liked to take things apart to see how they work, but I wasn’t always able to put them back together, which got me in some trouble at times. By high school, I was always curious about how the brain worked, and a combination of some psychology and biology courses started me down the neuroscience road. Over time it has slowly changed — from trying to figure out how the brain works to now studying what happens when a disease prevents the brain from working as it should.
Is this what you thought you’d do when you grew up?
I didn’t really know what I wanted to do when I grew up. During my sophomore year in college, I got involved by working in research labs. I figured out how to collect data and how the science works. As soon as I started doing that, it was game over for me; there is absolutely nothing better than doing a research project, getting an answer, and moving to the next question. I was hooked from there.
Research is never dull! Once you determine the experiment is working, every question generates another 20 questions, and you have to figure out what the data are telling you. That makes it interesting!
Tell us about a question or problem you are currently trying to answer.
I would like to make some substantial leap forward in terms of the cause, diagnosis, and treatment of Alzheimer’s disease. I don’t believe that I will solve it, but I would like to make a large contribution. There is still so much we need to understand about this catastrophic disease.
With that said, I am really proud of several things that the Integrated Health Sciences School has been involved with. The first is the collaborative research that we have been able to be a part of in Las Vegas. Over the last eight years, we have been part of several collaborations with clinical researchers at UNLV and the Cleveland Clinic Lou Ruvo Center for Brain Health. These relationships have been extremely productive in research but also in growing our research capacity. When basic researchers and clinical researchers collaborate, the science is better, and the discoveries have a greater impact. In fact, my laboratory has now the only biobank in Nevada. The biomarker discovery work we are doing continues to attract and grow tremendous collaborations.
I am also very proud of how the field of neuroscience has grown at UNLV thanks to the efforts of many people. When I came to UNLV, there was not much in the way of formal neuroscience training. As of two years ago, we have an interdisciplinary Ph.D. program in neuroscience. I am very proud of these students and the growth of such an important area.
What do you like to do to unwind?
I am a Vegas Golden Knights fan, and I play a lot of tennis. I do have a 10-year-old son who is an absolute blast and might be smarter than me. He certainly keeps me on my toes. I probably play a little bit too much tennis. Ever since I was a grad student, I always had a sport that I played a lot; it was about the only time my brain completely shut down. For a while, it was skiing, then it was volleyball, and now it’s tennis. Playing sports is undoubtedly high on the list for me.
Tell us about an object in your office and what it represents to you.
Besides work stuff, the artwork is what people ask me about the most. Funny enough, it’s not about the cool etching of the brain. Most people look at it and know it’s a brain and move on, but the four pieces of art, each depicting a different city, always get a lot of interpretation. (Denver, D.C., Vegas, and San Diego) I love that their brains think about it and interpret the pieces in lots of different ways.
Is there anyone you would like to thank?
Without a doubt, I would like to thank the research staff, graduate students, and undergraduate researchers in my laboratory who have been invaluable to all the work we’ve done. They are the horsepower behind a lot of it. I’ve been fortunate that I’ve had some outstanding grad students and good undergrads that have worked in the lab that have been exceptional. I have also benefited greatly from working with a few gifted collaborators who have advanced the research and been invaluable in the growth of our laboratory and capacity. I am also appreciative of several folks in the UNLV administration that have consistently been very supportive of our research and the neuroscience build-up. They have seen the value in what we were growing and have provided support over the years.