Jonathan Kelber, Ph.D.
Jonathan Kelber, Ph.D.

Jonathan Kelber, Ph.D.

Faculty | Northridge

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“The CSU offers students real, tangible training that prepares them for what’s to come.”

Making his mark on medical research would be great, says CSU Northridge biology professor Dr. Jonathan Kelber, but what excites him most is mentoring the next generation of scientists.

As an undergraduate, Jonath​an Kelber, Ph.D., never expected to be doing hands-on research.

But at just 22 he found himself in the lab, measuring proteins and amino acids to better understand HIV, even before he'd earned his bachelor's degree.

"While I think the research topic we studied was interesting," recalls Dr. Kelber, now director of the Developmental Oncogene Laboratory and an associate professor of biology at California State University, Northridge, "when I think back about the work I did in that lab, it was more about that experience that sparked an interest for me.

 "It made for a very contagious and motivating environment."

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Exceeding Expectations

Urged on by his chemistry professor — Patrick Mobley, Ph.D., professor of chemistry emeritus at California State Polytechnic University, Pomona, who is still a close friend — it wasn't long before Kelber developed a passion for biomedical research.

"As a student, what really struck me was the interaction I had with faculty members — particularly my research advisor — on a regular basis," says Kelber. "I was doing experiments and I was coming up with my own ideas, and this was completely expected of me by my faculty mentor."

Today, Kelber is paying it forward. He gives CSUN students the same life-changing opportunities made available to him some 20 years ago.

The 42-year-old's research team is comprised of a mix of postdoctoral fellows and graduate students as well as undergraduate biology students who get to do research, present at international conferences, and author peer-reviewed publications.

"Our students have access to opportunities that aren't available to many undergraduate students elsewhere," says Kelber, adding that his laboratory is as diverse as the CSUN campus, whose student population is approximately 46 percent Hispanic. 

When students are part of a really exciting area of research, it takes on a greater purpose.  — Dr. Jonathan Kelber

The Next Generation of Scientists

After graduating from Cal Poly Pomona with his bachelor's in 1999, Kelber took a job as a high school science teacher. He would later return to the Pomona campus for his master's degree.

But his days as a researcher weren't over: "In the back of my mind, I knew that in the CSU there was this opportunity to teach and manage a research lab, and I kept this in mind as I went on to earn my doctorate degree." 

A few years after graduating with a Ph.D., Kelber was ready to give back to the CSU in much the same way Dr. Mobley and others had helped him. 

"The CSU offers students this real, tangible training that prepares them for what's to come," says the married father of three, who joined the CSUN faculty in 2012.

These days, it's not unusual to spot Kelber peddling his Specialized bike to and from Chaparral Hall on the CSUN campus, taking advantage of the famous southern California sunshine as much as he can.

Time outdoors is an essential counterpoint to the hours spent at the bench in the lab, guiding undergrads as they apply what they've learned about cellular and molecular biology to cancer and regenerative medicine.

Beyond the obvious impact a breakthrough in cancer research might offer to anyone with the disease, Kelber is most excited about the opportunities his CSUN lab can give to this next generation of scientists.

"We are able to expose our diverse student population to this real-world, cutting-edge research," he enthuses.

"I would argue the experience that [undergraduate] students get in my lab, and many labs in our department, is on par and even more hands-on than what they may be exposed to at big research institutions elsewhere."

Jonathan Kelber, Ph.D.

Conquering the Big C

Much of the research in Kelber's lab focuses on catching cancer early. "Once cancer spreads, it becomes much more challenging for doctors to manage and treat," he explains. "And once it begins growing in one new tissue, it is also likely to spread to other tissues."

In January 2017, Kelber was awarded a four-year, $1.46 million grant from the National Institutes of Health for research aimed at improving both diagnosis and treatment in patients with breast and pancreatic cancer.

The grant is one of the largest ever awarded to a CSUN faculty member; the funding has enabled him to expand his research program to include more trainees at all levels. 

Therapies to treat cancer that has metastasized are comparatively few, making the work of Kelber and his lab trainees even more urgent.

"When students are part of a really exciting area of research, it takes on a greater purpose," he says. "They gain an awareness of real-world problems and how they can make a difference. 

"I want to get them excited about and proud of the work they're doing." 


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