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Kent Thornburg standing in front of view of cityscape

Alumnus Kent Thornburg: From amphibians to mammals

By Srila Nayak

Kent Thornburg, Ph.D. in Zoology at OSU '72

Dr. Kent Thornburg (’72), who earned his earned his Ph.D. in Zoology, is now a globally acclaimed scientist in cardiovascular physiology, adult-onset chronic disease, and maternal-fetal health at Oregon Health & Sciences University (OHSU). He holds the M. Lowell Edwards Chair in the Department of Medicine and directs the Center for Developmental Health at OHSU Knight Cardiovascular Institute.

Thornburg is also director of the OHSU Bob and Charlee Moore Institute for Nutrition & Wellness.

After graduating from George Fox University in Newberg, Ore., Thornburg arrived at OSU in 1967 as a budding young scientist.

“I received a lot of personal attention from my professors. I came in very naïve as a scientist. The courses I took were extremely useful and set the course for what I am doing in my career.”

Thornburg studied embryology, or what is now known as developmental physiology under the direction of Dr. Howard Hillemann, who taught courses in comparative vertebrate anatomy and embryology from 1946-75. Thornburg says his graduate work with professor Hillemann was exactly what he needed and set him on the path of becoming a physiologist.

Fascinated by vertebrate cardiopulmonary development, Thornburg focused his doctoral research on how the heart changes in frogs from the embryonic state onwards.

He credits his graduate work on developmental physiology in amphibians with having a strong impact on his scientific career. Even as he switched research gears, Thornberg’s interest in the development of the heart remained. He transferred his research to cardiovascular physiology in humans as a postdoctoral researcher at OHSU.

One of Thornburg’s pioneering research endeavors has been the long-term study of how early life environment that begins in the womb can be a determinant of disease, including heart and cardiovascular disease, later in life.

Currently, the cardiologist leads a team of scientists at OHSU in an exciting, new field of science called “epigenetics,” which explores how genes can be permanently modified by the environment, primarily through maternal diet and stress, and the changes that can be passed along to future generations in a family. Thornburg is the principal investigator on multiple NIH-funded research projects involving maternal-fetal signaling, training in cardiovascular research, thyroid hormone and heart development and placental function.

Thornberg fondly remembers the department as a deeply nurturing and encouraging place, where professors would readily take students under their wings and impart valuable research advice. He especially recalls his interactions with one of the department’s beloved and acclaimed teachers, Robert “Doc” Storm.

Storm, an expert on Pacific Northwest amphibians and reptiles, would often teach his students in the field.

“I took all his courses in field biology, and he helped me adjust to life in the department,” recalled Thornburg.