'I had the right mentors' – Paigen Fellowship recognizes postdoctoral talent

Abdulfatai Tijjani the 2024 Jackson Laboratory recipient of the Paigen fellowship Abdulfatai Tijjani, Ph.D., the recipient of the 2024 Paigen Fellowship. Photo credit: Tiffany Laufer

Award supports Postdoctoral Associate Abdulfatai Tijjani's humanistic approach to research.

Abdulfatai Tijjani, Ph.D., came to The Jackson Laboratory two years ago to help advance JAX’s mission to transform the future of human health. Yet he arrived at human disease from the study of a distinctly different type of mammal: African cattle.    

As a livestock genome analyst at the International Livestock Research Institute in Ethiopia, Tijjani used DNA- sequencing techniques to understand the genetics of natural selection in indigenous African cattle breeds, investigating why some could tolerate disease while others could not. In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, he found himself wishing to have more impact on diseases affecting the human population. So began his new chapter with JAX.

Tijjani is the recipient of the 2024 Paigen Endowed Fellowship, an award that recognizes promising postdoctoral talent at JAX. The Fellowship honors the late Drs. Kenneth and Beverly Paigen, two integral members of the JAX community whose shared commitment to mentorship has shaped generations of scientists.

“I am thrilled to receive the Paigen Fellowship,” Tijjani said, “and I am mindful of the responsibility that comes with it. I am particularly committed to mentoring fellow scientists to help them achieve their scientific goals, and this recognition has only fueled my motivation to contribute even more.”

He found his entry into human health with Steve Munger, Ph.D., whose team uses a systems genetics approach – studying not just single genes, but their interactions with one another and the environment — to understand the complex mechanics of various diseases.

“Abdulfatai’s breadth of research interests and generous nature make him a valued colleague in my lab and a well-respected member of the broader JAX community,” Munger said. “These qualities, along with his commitment to mentorship and service, make him particularly deserving of an award that honors two beloved JAX scientists – Bev and Ken Paigen – who mentored many young researchers and contributed so much to our community over their decades at JAX. Indeed, Abdulfatai embodies and models the values and spirit of the Paigens.”

Investigating age-related vision loss

One of Tijjani’s first projects in the Munger lab was an investigation into age-related macular degeneration (AMD).

(l to r) Steve Munger and Abdulfatai Tijjani. Photo credit: Tiffany Laufer.

AMD is the most common cause of vision loss in the aging population, with an estimated 200 million cases worldwide. It’s caused by the progressive deterioration of a tissue known as retinal pigment epithelium (RPE), which plays a critical role in nourishing the eye’s photoreceptors, or light-sensing cells.  The deterioration of RPE eventually leads to photoreceptor death and vision loss, for which no effective prevention or treatment exists.

Munger and Tijjani teamed up with Dr. Jurgen Naggert for an eight-week experiment on genetically diverse mice to study how the complex relationship between an individual’s genetic background and their diet influences their susceptibility to AMD. Some mice received a standard, balanced diet, while others received a high-fat, high-sugar diet modeled after the Western diet, which is known to predispose humans to AMD. Munger and Tijjani worked to identify genetic variants that influence the expression of genes associated with susceptibility or resilience to AMD in humans.

They also deployed a technique known as “network analysis” to identify patterns and functions within large groups of genes, with particular interest in those involved in neurodegeneration. Because AMD is a neurodegenerative disease, it shares clinical and pathological features with Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia. Tijjani hopes to advance single-cell research on AMD, and to identify potential therapeutic targets.

“As the field of genomics advances, we’re gaining an even deeper understanding of which genetic variants influence the expression of certain genes in specific cells,” he said. “This ability to narrow down cell type specificity has profound implications for helping us live longer, healthier lives.”

On being mentored and paying it forward

Tijjani is enthusiastic about translating discoveries made at JAX into treatments that will change our approach to human disease.

“The basic research is crucial, but it’s a different feeling to see the real-world impact of the research on people, whether it’s a new drug or a form of personalized medicine,” he said. “I think there is such an opportunity for JAX to make a difference in that regard.”   

The Paigen Fellowship enables Tijjani to share his research with a broader audience – colleagues at international conferences, for example – but he’s most passionate about connecting with young scientists in need of the right mentor and resources to help them advance their careers.

He’s grateful for the mentors who helped him gain scholarships for both his master’s and doctoral degrees, which have led to “endless opportunities ever since.” At JAX, mentors like Munger and others give him space to take initiative and risks and to accept failure and recovery as crucial parts of the research process.

“I have gotten where I am today because I had the right mentors,” he said. “And I’m eager now to support young scientists who are full of potential and need someone to point them in the right direction.”