Neuroscientist leads biology, genetics

Don Sakaguchi leads two programs at Iowa State that maintain a consistent enrollment of about 900 total undergraduates.

The Morrill Professor of genetics, development and cell biology, and widely respected neurobiologist, was named director of the biology and genetics undergraduate programs in 2020.

“Biology and genetics students pursue extremely diverse career paths including continuing their education via medical and veterinary schools,” says Sakaguchi. The interdepartmental majors are jointly administered through the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences and the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences.

Andy Zehr, director of marketing and new student programs for the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, says the diverse career pathways reflect the entirety of the college’s name.

“Recent grads have landed positions with Syngenta, the Virginia Aquarium, Johns Hopkins Medical School, the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard, Mayo Clinic and Corteva Agriscience,” Zehr says. “Students can pursue a career in a number of human health avenues starting right here in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences.”

An important goal of the programs is to provide career experiences through research and internships. Sakaguchi appreciates the impact such opportunities can have.

“When I was an undergraduate biology major, working in a lab where I studied crickets’ sensory neurobiology really influenced my career path,” he says.

As a graduate student, a love of the ocean was ignited when he worked at Stanford’s Hopkins Marine Station researching a marine snail with a unique “brain.”

He joined the faculty at Iowa State in 1991 after earning a bachelor’s and doctorate at the State University of New York and doing post-doctoral work at the University of California, San Diego. His highly interdisciplinary research explores the potential of using adult stem cells to develop strategies for brain and tissue rescue and repair.

“Dr. Sakaguchi is an outstanding neurobiologist who has had considerable impact on his field,” says Jeanne Serb, director of the Office of Biotechnology and associate professor in ecology, evolution and organismal biology. “Don has very high standards, but he’s kind and approachable. He leads by example as he works with students and faculty from multiple departments to further the study of life.”

A member of Iowa State’s new interdisciplinary Nanovaccine Institute, Sakaguchi teaches a range of courses from basic principles of biology to a seminar course exploring the frontiers of cellular engineering. He also shares his passion for marine environments in a study abroad course he helped create – Caribbean Marine Biology.

Sakaguchi has earned multiple honors for teaching and leadership and has served as faculty advisor for the Biological Sciences Club, the Ames Iowa Chapter of the Society for Neuroscience and Iowa State’s Beta, Beta, Beta chapter (the national honor society for students in the biological sciences).

As Sakaguchi reflects on his different roles as a teacher and mentor he offers this advice to students: “It’s important to be proactive and seek out opportunities. Be open to new experiences, including studying abroad. This is not just to succeed as a student, but also to make your time in college memorable and rewarding.”

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To learn more about career pathways in genetics and biology via a degree in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences contact Andy Zehr, director of marketing and new student programs, at or 515-294-9123.