"It was amazing how everything fell together," Jordan says. In little more than a year, Jordan discovered a passion for research and made the transition from lab technician to graduate student.
He credits the small but "utterly approachable" faculty in Human Genetics. Not just his adviser, Vilain, but all the principal investigators are "so helpful about teaching all of the students in whatever way they can," Jordan says.
Jordan is working on the sex determination cascade in mammals, "all of the genes involved in deciding whether somebody's going to be male or female," Jordan explains. "It's much more complicated than just having a Y chromosome or not."
One of those genes is WNT-4. Research has shown that when WNT-4 is missing, female mice develop ovotestes, the kind of ambiguous sexual organs characteristic of sexual determination gone awry. Using preserved DNA from a male infant who had a Y chromosome but ambiguous sexual organs, Jordan found that the boy had too many copies of that same gene.
As Jordan explains it, both males and females start out with almost identical genes. It's the patterns in which those genes are turned on or off that determine gender. In this case, too much WNT-4 appears to create abnormalities in males, whereas too little creates abnormalities in females. The American Journal of Human Genetics is publishing Jordan's research.
Jordan is also engaged in a related project that won him a predoctoral fellowship from the MIND Institute at UC Davis. The institute studies problems of the central nervous system. As it happens, many of the genes involved in sexual development are expressed in the brain, and Jordan is studying how those genes might affect the way brains are structured.
Jordan hopes to get through his Ph.D. research quickly so he can move on to the next step, medical school. Taking his model from Vilain, Jordan wants to be both a Ph.D. researcher and a physician.
Among Vilain's patients, Jordan has seen infants and young children whose ambiguous genitalia are just one expression of abnormal development. "These people socially have just terrible, terrible problems because they don't fit in anywhere," Jordan says. Besides their physical problems, they are often "devastated by their own situation, and it's not something they could do anything about."
"He didn't choose the easiest path," Vilain says of his prot„g„. "He wanted to do the research first because that's what he's passionate about. But because he's a humanist, he also wants to apply research to medicine, to try to transfer his scientific knowledge to the bedside."