Jan Nolta '84 (Biology)

Nolta on the cutting edge of medical research

Jan Nolta
Jan Nolta was on track to become a doctor or veterinarian until Sac State biology professor Laurel Heffernan made a simple observation.

“She said, ‘You seem to like it so much in the lab. You know you could be a scientist and get paid for it.’ I was floored!” she laughs.

More than 25 years later, it appears now-Associate Dean Heffernan’s nudge paid off. Today Nolta is one of the nation’s leading stem cell researchers and director of the Stem Cell Program at the UC Davis Institute for Regenerative Cures.

Through a collaborative graduate degree program in stem cell research between Sacramento State and UC Davis, Sac State students participate in full-time internships at the Institute. The fact that Sac State interns are working in her lab means “it has come full circle,” Nolta says. “It’s so cool to be able to do this.”

Nolta oversees a research program with more than 145 faculty members working on stem cell-related cures for a number of diseases including disorders of the liver, kidney, lung, bone and heart. Her specialty is Huntington’s disease, a degenerative condition affecting nerve cells in the brain, and she was drawn to it for one simple reason—the patients.

“When I work with them or their advocates or families, it tends to get to me,” she says. “They are such amazing people. There are 23 people throughout the system working on the Huntington’s disease team, and it’s rewarding to know we’re making a difference.”

The research is conducted in a new, state-of-the-art facility constructed with funds generated by the passage of Proposition 71 in 2004. Nolta says the teams focus on “bench to bedside” research.

“Simply translated, that means we move from discovery to clinical trials. We also call it from ‘mice to men.’”

She loves her work, despite long hours.

“I’ve always been fascinated with how cells divide and I spent 10 years studying adult stem cells and how they heal tissue.”

The research often means an 18- to 20-hour workday.

“No kidding, I work, drive home and eat something and then I’m back on the computer,” Nolta says.

It helps that the atmosphere in the lab is “light-hearted, with lots of laughter. We all have that passion.”

What is her advice to other aspiring scientists?

“Stem cell research is the medicine of the future. If we can fix, repair or stop a disease’s progress, we give people a life without need for medicine, we reduce healthcare costs and avoid the barbarism of amputation. I’d say, get into the stem cell field.”

This article was originally published in the Spring 2011 edition of Sac State Magazine.