Tom LaRocca is an assistant professor in the Department of Health and Exercise Science at CSU and he is a new faculty member in the Cell and Molecular Biology program. His research focuses on the biology of healthspan and he has a strong background in molecular biology research and education.
Describe your career path.
My original background is in biochemistry, and I was a high school chemistry teacher for 5 years after college. However, I chose to study physiology as a grad student because I like to work on problems related to human health (my dissertation focused on cellular changes that occur in the heart and arteries as we age). Later, as a postdoc, I conducted research on the molecular biology of brain diseases like ALS and Alzheimer’s. Through these experiences, I realized that the biological causes of aging and disease overlap a lot, and that focusing on these common mechanisms might be a good approach for finding ways to increase “healthspan” (the period of life during which we are healthy and productive). That’s what we study in my lab, and our approach is really a combination of all the techniques I picked up along the way—bioinformatics, cell culture, and studies in C. elegans, mice and humans.
What made you choose academia over other career paths?
I considered medical school and industry, but academia is a better fit for my personality: I’ve always enjoyed learning new things and coming up with new (and sometimes crazy) ideas that I can test. I also love tinkering in the lab, trying new techniques, and sharing those “ah-ha!” moments with others.
What are the big questions you want to answer through research?
I am interested in understanding the biology of healthspan. I want to know what goes on at the biological level as we age, and how it affects our overall health/function across the lifespan. One thing we know is that “good stuff” like exercise certainly improves healthspan, and I would like to determine if the biological processes stimulated by exercise can also help us understand other approaches (e.g., nutrition, pharma, genetics) for increasing healthspan.
What does your research team look like?
We have a great little lab (one postdoc, one grad student and me), and we all work together on most projects—but we’re hoping to double our size this year and are already recruiting some undergraduate research assistants.
How do you achieve work/life balance?
I am a closet musician and a (very) recreational athlete. When I have free time, I like to play music or cook, and then run, swim or ski so that I can cook some more.
Who is your scientific hero and why?
My high school biology teacher is the reason I got into science. He was a retired college professor (and a total character) who really inspired me and many other students. I hope I can share the good stuff in science with as many people as he did.
What do you know now that you wish you had known in graduate school?
I think I know how to write more effectively (less is more!). I didn’t know that in grad school, but I was a scientific writing instructor for a couple of years overlapping with my postdoc work, so I got to focus on that a lot.
What do you enjoy most about mentoring students?
I enjoy seeing students progress on all fronts (knowledge, skills, writing and professional tactics), but the two best things are: 1) those “ah-ha!” moments when they find something exciting; and 2) seeing them get closer to the career or life they want.
What do you look for in a graduate student?
I look for students who can work hard but also enjoy themselves (in life and as part of our team). It’s important to be able to buckle down when there are deadlines but also have some fun and balance. I also love pre-crastinators (I hate waiting until the last minute) and people who can keep things organized and simple.
Are you currently looking for students?
Yes, we are looking for several students to join the team this year.