Waisman Center welcomes new affiliated investigator Justin Wolter

By Emily Leclerc, Waisman Science Writer

Justin Wolter, PhD
Justin Wolter, PhD

The Waisman Center welcomes a new affiliated investigator Justin Wolter, PhD, assistant professor of medical genetics. Wolter comes to Waisman and UW-Madison from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (UNC), where he completed his postdoctoral fellowship. “The scientific and intellectual environment at UW is just amazing,” Wolter says. “It has been an absolutely fantastic decision to come to Madison, in many ways that we anticipated and in many ways we didn’t.”

Wolter has always been interested in neuroscience and fascinated by the brain. Because of that, he obtained his bachelor’s degree in psychology. But psychology was never able to answer the questions he was really interested in, so he continued forward and pursued a PhD in molecular biology. Throughout his PhD program, Wolter worked on basic developmental molecular biology projects, including in the worm C. elegans and human cell lines. For his postdoctoral training, he moved to the lab of Mark Zylka, where he worked on mouse models of neurodevelopmental disorders. “I thought I would spend my career knocking out a gene in a mouse, and studying their brain development. The kind of classic approach to neuroscience in some ways,” Wolter says. When he got to UNC though, everything changed.

The Zylka lab was next door to the lab of Jason Stein, PhD, associate professor of genetics in UNC’s Neuroscience Research Center. Stein’s lab had just opened, and worked primarily with human genetics to study risk factors for neuropsychiatric and neurodevelopmental disorders. Wolter had never considered working with human genetics before but throughout his postdoc, Wolter collaborated closely with Stein, learning deeply about human genetics and its potential applications in the lab.

“In the Stein lab I learned about how genetic studies in cells in a dish can actually bridge the gap between the genetic diversity we all carry, and complicated human traits like risk for a disorder. This approach is relatively new, and I knew this was the direction I needed to go,” Wolter says. “So I pivoted away from the mouse model work and focused the end of my postdoctoral training on genetic variation in cell lines, which is the foundation for my new lab.”

Today, Wolter’s lab is focused on how genetic variation affects neurodevelopment. This research follows two broad pathways. The first is looking at rare mutations that tend to affect one specific gene. Through the use of mouse models, Wolter investigates how the mutations impact neurodevelopment in a developing brain in the context of mutations associated with neurodegeneration. The second path looks at common genetic variation that are seen across humans. He uses induced pluripotent stem cell (iPSC) lines from genetically diverse individuals, some with neurodevelopmental disorders and some without, to investigate how molecular and cellular traits of neural cells are affected by the millions of genetic variants that exist in each cell. This double pathway research foundation provides Wolter with a flexible base to study neurodevelopment in a myriad of ways.

“In general, my experience has taught me to be open minded, and go where your curiosity and data takes you. When you see a surprising phenotype or an effect of a mutation that is having a huge effect, whatever that effect is, you have to follow that,” Wolter says. “It has definitely led us in some really interesting and unexpected directions, forcing us to learn and tackle new problems. The unpredictable nature of biology always keeps us on our toes, and excited for the results of the next experiment.”

Wolter knew about the Waisman Center before moving to Madison but when he began establishing his lab at UW-Madison, he immediately knew he wanted to be involved. And the Waisman Center’s mission fits nicely with Wolter’s research goals. He is thrilled to work alongside Waisman’s investigators. “The PIs here have a wealth of expertise that I am eager to learn from as I build my lab,” Wolter says.

In particular, Wolter is excited to be able to integrate his work into the clinical settings that Waisman has to offer. “UNC and UW are like kindred spirits, and are run in very similar, collaborative ways,” Wolter says. “Both have great integration of clinics and research, so in a lot of ways Waisman feels really familiar.”

Many of the iPSC lines Wolter works with came from individuals who are seen at UNC’s Carolina Institute for Developmental Disabilities. As he recorded and analyzed genetic and molecular data from cells in the lab, he could then compare that with clinical data on brain growth patterns and behavioral traits. “The ability to connect our cellular data with clinical data from the person who the cells came from is really powerful. The studies from my postdoctoral training gives us a lot of momentum to explore the many ways that iPSCs can fill in the holes in our understanding of how genetics affects outcomes in neurodevelopmental disorders,” Wolter says. He hopes that as he becomes more established he will be able to continue similar work working with the Waisman Center Clinics.

Two teenagers and an adult in full scuba diving gear posing for a picture underwater
Justin Wolter (right) scuba diving with two of his kids (Adelyn, left, and Jude, middle) in Akumal Mexico

Outside of the lab, Wolter and his wife are avid scuba divers and often make trips to spend as much time as possible underwater. Just last month they were in Belize on a dive trip. And now that his four children are getting older, Wolter is delighting in being able to scuba dive with them. “Whenever we go on vacations we all dive together and that is so cool. I’ve literally teared up underwater watching my family breathe underwater,” Wolter says.

In what little spare time he has, Wolter also loves to woodwork and play the drums. “My garage does not park cars,” he says.

Overall, Wolter is absolutely thrilled to be a Waisman affiliate and cannot wait to see where things go. “The quality of the graduate students in Madison and their genuine excitement at being here feels really special. It is something I heard before coming here that has turned out to be true in spades,” Wolter says. “We are all just really excited about building a lab and being a part of the Waisman Center and UW-Madison.”


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