As he neared completion of his PhD in Integrative Molecular and Biomedical Sciences at Baylor College of Medicine, Antentor “AJ” Hinton, Jr, was considering nine different offers for employment, three of them from faculty at the University of Iowa. One of those Iowans was E. Dale Abel, MD, PhD. Almost all of the other recruiters, Hinton said, offered him a consistent piece of advice: “If you get the opportunity, take the job in Dale Abel’s lab.” Hinton did get the opportunity and he did take the job in Abel’s lab. But not just because everyone told him to.
A connection grounded in respect
Details in the story of how he arrived at the decision reveal a few things about Hinton. First, the stack of offers shows that he was and still is both a promising and already-accomplished scientist. So much so that recruiters were looking for him as much as he was looking for them. Second, he thinks decisions through very carefully, on his own terms. Hinton had more criteria than recruiter recommendations. One among many surprised him during a visit to Iowa. Meeting the members of the Abel Lab, Hinton discovered an interesting fact. “There was someone from each continent. . . . That felt comfortable to me,” he said. He knew that a more diverse mix of people would lead to a more collaborative environment. He also appreciated how hard they grilled him after his presentation. If they would treat a candidate with such rigor, he reasoned, “imagine what was actually going on in the lab.”
Third, the story of Hinton’s postdoc recruitment and decision to come to Iowa reveals his clear-eyed ambition. The first time he met Abel was at an Endocrine Society conference, in a meeting of Future Leaders Advancing Research in Endocrinology (FLARE), a program still led by Abel. Hinton was a member of the program, which in its eight-year existence has provided more than 100 high-achieving fellows from underrepresented minority communities with structured mentorship and in-depth, hands-on training in all aspects of research from basic science to grant management.
Abel asked Hinton what his goals were, the same kind of question any other recruiter might ask. Hinton responded with a list grounded in what he had already achieved in his career, a bold but not impossible list to have in place by the time he finished his postdoc: “an HHMI investigator, two R01s, an associate professor . . . in five years’ time.” Hinton says that most people laughed when he shared this list, but Abel did not. Hinton said, “He just told me, ‘let’s talk.’ He was open and receptive to those goals.” Abel told Hinton to look him up and see if Hinton was interested in studying a new area in metabolism. Hinton valued being taken seriously, and did not forget it.
Rooted in good science
Hinton has been practicing science pretty much his whole life. Growing up in a large family in Asheville, North Carolina, his grandparents introduced him to botany. A summer internship at Duke University found him building on that base as he studied intracellular signaling that triggered a hormone to produce larger fruit. At Winston-Salem State University, a historically black university where he received his BS, Hinton studied the links between epilepsy and a ketogenic diet, the first indications of Hinton’s career-long interest in the links between diet, neurology, and metabolism.
Hinton maximized his time between, and sometimes even during, semesters, earning internships at Wisconsin and another at Wake Forest through a program called MARC (Maximizing Access to Research Careers), designed to “stimulate minority thought processes about science in creative ways.” The work he did in addition to his degree work was varied—from plant protections against pathogens to cancer immunology—and he enjoyed it, but by the end of his undergraduate degree, he was not sure if it was “the right career path.” Before diving deeply into graduate school, he entered a post-baccalaureate program at Baylor.
There, he worked with Dr. Theodore Wensel on RGS regulators of G-proteins, a major target of interest for pharmaceuticals treating a range of conditions. “It was very interesting. My project was looking at metabolic responses in an obese model, how RGS7 was impacting the model.” Hinton contributed to some interesting discoveries and earnest applications to four different graduate schools soon followed, Baylor included, whose offer he accepted. Hinton worked on a variety of projects including one on estrogen signaling in the brain, choosing to focus on its impact on hypertension rather than obesity, where most others were congregating. A number of discoveries, publications, distinctions, and awards later and Hinton was on his way to Iowa City.
Teaching threaded through all
To hear Hinton describe life and work in the Abel Lab, one thinks of a perfectly calibrated machine without extraneous pieces or even of a pyramid scheme without the scam. Abel manages a handful of senior investigators, each of whom are pursuing their own lines of inquiry related to the lab’s larger area of focus. Those investigators in turn manage a mix of postdocs, graduate and undergraduate students, who are also conducting their own related investigations, some of whom are also managing their own smaller teams. There is a lot of overlap with many assisting on multiple projects, and at every level there is constructive feedback and advice, with the more seasoned supervisor identifying training opportunities for the supervised. Hinton, to hear his colleagues tell it, excels at this.
“AJ has a passion for mentorship,” Abel says. “His devotion to the academic advancement of undergraduates who work with him is impressive. He has supported his students, who have garnered numerous awards, scholarships, and opportunities to present their work at national conferences. I believe that his impact on his trainees will have a lifelong impact.” Renata Pereira Alambert, PhD, agrees. “He is exceptionally committed to his student’s academic success. His dedication to undergraduate students’ training and development is remarkable.” One of those undergraduates, Jesse Cochran, has seen that firsthand and is impressed with what Hinton has achieved. Cochran calls him “exceptionally gifted and hardworking” and appreciates the “substantial amount of time and effort” that Hinton spends “mentoring the next generation.”
For his part, Hinton is grateful for the same amount of mentorship he receives from Pereira and Abel. Their regular meetings, he says, always involve a mix of specifics about the science as well as a personal check-in. “Dr. Abel has a high IQ, but I think he has an even higher EQ, emotional quotient. A way of interacting with you that is very in the moment.” This, as much as learning new ways to approach scientific puzzles, is something Hinton says he wants to emulate. Helping others be their best selves both in and out of the lab.
In the years since arriving at Iowa, Hinton has continued to add to his list of publications and awards. He has earned a three-year, $60,000 Burroughs Wellcome Fund postdoctoral fellowship and an Abboud Cardiovascular Research Center Institutional Fellowship, one of the longest-running T32 training grants in the country. Hinton also recently received a Ford Foundation research fellowship from the National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine. Last year he won two separate awards for his outstanding mentorship, one from the Iowa Center for Undergraduate Research and the other from the UI’s Center for Diversity and Enrichment.
In Hinton’s view, getting good at mentoring helps him as much as it helps his trainees. This is the culture of the lab, he says, for which he is grateful to be a part. When your teammate does well, you do well. The competition is in the science, in his view, not against others. Hinton has an active life outside the lab as well. He loves to engage in regular tennis matches with mentors, friends, or anyone who is up for helping him improve his game. He is also active in his church and in other community organizations, drawing strength and support, he says, from those relationships. It is easy to see how such a personable, inquisitive, and giving person builds strong and lasting connections.