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Research News

Curiosity, discovery sparked research career

By SUE WUETCHER

Published August 8, 2013

“I stumbled into a life of research largely by developing an interest in the world around me.”
Provost Charles F. Zukoski

There was no single, major event that led Provost Charles F. Zukoski down the career path as a scientific researcher.

Instead, he told student scientists attending Biomedical Research Day last week at UB’s Clinical and Translational Research Center (CTRC), it was “a lifetime of curiosity and discovery, and a series of fortunate events” that influenced his interest in research.

“I stumbled into a life of research largely by developing an interest in the world around me,” said Zukoski, an internationally recognized scholar in chemical engineering.

In high school, he explained, he took a community college class in geology “and we looked at the minerals in rocks and how mountains were formed.”

He also was a Boy Scout and had a scout master who would point to the stars and talk about impossible distances and ask questions about sending robots to Mars and conducting experiments to determine if there was life on that planet.

As an undergraduate physics major at Reed College, a classical liberal arts college in Portland, Ore., Zukoski said he took many humanities courses.

“In these classes, I read many books that were about history and people,” he said. “Although these books were not scientific at all, they led to (me) asking questions like, why does gold settle in the bottom when gold panning? (after reading about the Alaska Gold rush). And I would find answers. I developed questions and learned something valuable out of everything I read.”

After graduation, he was hired as a technician in a research lab at the Oregon Health & Science University, working with a biophysicist named Geoffrey Seaman.

“I needed a job,” Zukoski said, “and it was my first real job that helped me develop my research skills and interests.”

Working with Seaman in collaboration with multiple sclerosis doctor Roy Swank on a test for MS proved to be, Zukoski said, “a seminal moment for my future career.”

After a long, tedious day in the lab, Zukoski prepared to conduct a final experiment to determine if MS red blood cells incubated in normal plasma still had MS.

“It was the end of a long day,” he recalled. “I was a reluctant participant. Everyone else had gone home. I started this final stage thinking that I would do one experiment, show that this was a silly idea and then I would be free to go back to doing biophysics. I was exasperated and ready to go home.”

Zukoski conducted the experiment and “the normal cells had MS and, oh my goodness, the MS cells were normal. Wait—how could this be?” he asked. “This was amazing. I repeated the work, I did controls, I was in the lab until 11 at night.  This was stunning.”

Zukoski said he had discovered, for the first time, “that by incubating red cells from normal patients in plasma from MS patients I could make the normal red cells look like they had MS and could reverse the effect of MS by incubating the MS red blood cells in normal plasma. 

“I had never had such an adrenaline rush in my life,” he remembered. “I was simply astounded, excited and shocked. This was cool. This was discovery. This was what I would do the rest of my life.

“I was addicted—a chemical compulsion to do research,” he said. “Essentially, my career has sought to repeat that moment of raw emotion.”

Zukoski called his interest and career in science and research “manifestations of an interest in the world around me and opportunities to frame questions and answers in a way that enables reproducibility.”

“To me, understanding involves knowing that if I do such and such, there is a good chance I know what will happen. That reproducible frame of reference, that seeking to develop a world of ‘understanding’ led me to science and I have not regretted it. 

“My hope,” he told the students, “is that you will take from your own experiences—not necessarily the facts, but the connections, the curiosity, the observations of cool stuff, the emotional lift of insight, the addiction to that ‘ah-ha moment,’ the camaraderie of group efforts at discovery and explanation—and use these things to build a career.”

Zukoski’s keynote address was a highlight of Biomedical Research Day, which also included oral presentations and a poster exhibition describing results of research that more than 100 student scientists from across the country completed while at UB and other regional institutions this summer.

The six Buffalo programs taking part in the event included:

  • Summer Undergraduate Research Program (SURE) at the UB School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences
  • Student Research Program at the UB School of Dental Medicine
  • Summer Research Experience Program in Cancer Science at Roswell Park Cancer Institute
  • T35 Research Program in Infectious Diseases, Microbiology and Immunology at the UB School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences and Roswell Park Cancer Institute
  • Summer Apprentice Program at the Hauptman-Woodward Biomedical Research Institute
  • Collaborative Learning and Integrated Mentoring in the Biosciences Undergraduate Program (CLIMB UP at UB), with several students funded by the Institute for the Strategic Enhancement of Educational Diversity (iSEED)

Each summer, these programs give ambitious and highly qualified undergraduates and graduate students the opportunity to come to Buffalo to conduct meaningful research.

This year’s student investigators explored topics including, but not limited to, infectious disease, neuroscience, pharmacology, protein structure, periodontal disease and cancer.

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