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New Face: Janice Pluth

A happy meal toy proved to be a good luck charm for this health physics & diagnostic sciences professor in her NASA endeavors.

People  |  Aug 28, 2017  |  By Kevin Dunegan
Portrait of Janice Pluth

Janice Pluth, professor in the department of health physics & diagnostic sciences (Josh Hawkins/UNLV Creative Services)

Longtime researcher Janice Pluth has worked with incredible students during her cancer and radiation-focused research at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in Northern California. When she decided to begin teaching, UNLV’s nationally recognized student diversity and Top Tier aspirations led her to Southern Nevada and the university’s School of Allied Health Sciences.

Why UNLV?

I have led many research projects during my career and have interacted with excellent students who were dedicated to helping me, but did not have an opportunity to formally teach. When considering where to go, I was drawn to UNLV because of its student diversity, which brings uniqueness to the university, and its plan to become a Top Tier university and earn recognition as a research institution. I am looking forward to teaching radiation biology this fall. 

Where did you grow up?

I grew up in Rochester, Minnesota, and lived in the state until I obtained my bachelor’s at the University of Minnesota.

What is your field of research?

My long-term interests are to understand the mechanisms that contribute to the etiology of radiation-induced carcinogenesis. I have a career-long interest in understanding the repair of DNA double-strand breaks, the most damaging lesion induced by radiation. My work has focused on elucidating the proteins, pathways, and networks critical to the damage response. I’m also interested in better understanding individual differences in responses to damages as well as differences in cellular responses, particularly stem cells.

What is biggest challenge in your field?

One of the biggest challenges in my field of research is finding biomarkers that a clinic can use to predict how a person will respond to therapy. There are many researchers working with biomarkers to predict sensitivity to radiation, but these have not yet found widespread clinical use. Innovations in this area will help to move to a more personalized radiation treatment.

What inspired you to get into your field?

Two people were key to my career path. The first was my undergraduate microbiology teacher. He was able to make complex concepts easy to understand and saw potential in me as a strong researcher that I, at that time, did not see in myself. The other is Dr. Betsy Hirsch, who I worked with as a work-study student. She was then and still is now the director of the cytogenetics laboratory at the University of Minnesota. I was able to become fully immersed in a large twin study that stimulated me to better understand DNA repair and why individuals with the same genes may respond differently to the same exposures.

What is your proudest moment?

My proudest moment (so far) is my son graduating from high school.

If you could fix one thing in the world, what would it be?

If I could fix one thing — two, actually — in the world, it would be to ensure everyone had equal opportunities in life, and a safe environment in which to grow and live.

What would people be surprised to learn about you?

People might be surprised to learn I have a black belt in tae kwon do.

What kind of professor do you want to be known as?

I want to be known for taking an active interest in my students; as one who listens, relays information in an understandable manner, and helps them achieve their goals and recognize their potentials.

What object in your office has significance?

Years ago, my son’s happy meal contained a yellow toy planet connected to a space rover with the letters NASA on the side. I set it on my desk when I was writing my first NASA research grant. After I got the grant, the toy became my lucky charm. NASA has been very supportive of my work and the lucky charm has had a consistent place on my desk ever since.

Tell us about someone you admire and why.

I admire my mother-in-law. She is honest, unselfish, kind, and non-judgmental. She often reminds people who are critical of others that “you have not walked in their shoes.” She has always taken the high road and forgiven people — even those many of us would have a hard time forgiving. She inspires me to be a better person.

Pastimes and hobbies?

I enjoy martial arts, hiking, bonsai gardening, painting, and drawing.

Tell us about a time in your life when you have been daring?

I rock climb and a few times I’ve gotten into situations that are a bit intimidating, but I really enjoy it.

Finish this sentence, "If I couldn't work in my current field, I would like to . . . "

Be a therapist or counselor. I’ve worked for a number of years on a crisis hotline as a volunteer. If I wasn’t conducting research, I’d like to help people in this way.