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Proud of U: Jonathan Petrocelli

Jonathan Petrocelli is a research star. He’s one of only three students in the nation to receive the most prestigious National Institute of Health predoctoral award, which funds both his current training and four years of post-doctoral work. But his path to this point has been anything but direct, so Petrocelli has used a combination of passion and perseverance to stand out.

“I’ve had a pretty long journey to get here,” he said. “But I’m a really big science nerd, and I love trying to solve problems.”


Petrocelli Snowboard
 An avid snowboarder, Petrocelli takes advantage of a day in the Greatest Snow on Earth 

A Winding Path

Originally from Connecticut, Petrocelli attended two different colleges for undergrad to stay close to family, then attended UNC Charlotte for graduate school. He had no research experience before his master’s program, and he was the only person in his lab at the time. That sparked an interest in the sciences, particularly molecular biology, but it didn’t translate to direct success.

“I was applying to all of these biomedical science programs but didn’t get accepted into any of them—my GRE scores were pretty bad,” Petrocelli said. “I pivoted to applying to kinesiology PhD programs. Then I saw an ad from Micah Drummond on a forum, I emailed him the same morning and within a week I flew out to do an interview.”

Although Utah is a little different from the East Coast, Petrocelli only had to do one interview to decide it was his next landing spot. He joined the PhD program in rehabilitation sciences through the Department of Physical Therapy and Athletic Training in 2018. Since then, he’s authored 16 publications, including three as first author.

Mastering Metformin Research

His research focuses on Metformin, a drug typically prescribed for Type II diabetes. Petrocelli and his lab study repurposing the drug to help with muscle atrophy that occurs after surgery or during aging. The resulting frailty is directly correlated to mortality and disease.

“It was really unknown if Metformin would have an effect in that world, but there were clues it could be good,” he said. “I was lucky to be involved with a clinical trial with Metformin, which is a really unique training experience.”

So far, his research has shown that combining Metformin with an essential amino acid, Leucine, can enhance positive adaptations to muscle atrophy. These studies have focused on cells and aged animals but show promise for human therapeutics, especially because Metformin’s effects can vary depending on both cell and tissue type.

“I like working with aging and disease because we all know people experiencing it,” he said. “I have clinicians approach me about my research at conferences all the time, and they’re very excited about it.”

A Prestigious Award 

The pandemic hit right in the middle of Petrocelli’s program, but he used the lockdown to buckle down on his dissertation proposal, which was writing a successful grant. He’d struggled to find the winning grant combination, submitting several proposals that were rejected. But he struck gold with an F99 proposal, which received funding and a coveted low score, setting him up to win the NCI Predoctoral to Postdoctoral Fellow Transition Award.

“I couldn’t believe it when I checked my score, I thought there was an error on the page,” he said. “My program officer told me I’d probably get the award, and I thought it was crazy. It was trial and error and I finally got a hit.”

Petrocelli’s F99 focused on the mechanisms that happen around Metformin and proposed two different mechanistic studies, one with animals and one with cells. His proposal had to include a plan for 3-4 years of postdoctoral research and career development, so he plans to branch out and work with researchers who study other cell types and how they work with muscles. He’ll leverage his PhD from the College as a framework to work with all kinds of therapeutics, which includes finding and developing new drugs.

“Basically, my proposal said, ‘we have something cool, we don’t know how it works, but let’s figure it out,’” he said. “Aim one is your dissertation and aim two is what you’ll do in the future.”

Thanks to the training and funding he’s received, Petrocelli will pursue postdoctoral work after graduation and continue to study both muscle cells and tissues. Last spring, he received the College’s Graduate Student Researcher Award, and he hopes to ultimately work as a research professor, have his own lab, and serve as a mentor for students.

“I would say my time at the College has prepared me for my future career as much as I could possibly have hoped for. I think the training environment here is exceptional, and we’re provided with the tools necessary to succeed at the highest level.”


By Sarah Shebek