Connections, fate, and why we pay forward in Science by teaching students.

This is basically a post on how I got here, to become a professor in the Eye Research Institute of Oakland University, and a scientist who has been lucky enough to discover many new biological mechanisms working in many teams of great researchers. It is also a round about explanation of why paying forward is so important in science and education.

The ERI was founded in 1968 by V. Everett Kinsey, PhD and Venkat Reddy, PhD, just as Oakland University became an independent State University in 1969. Dr Kinsey was awarded the prestigious Lasker Clinical Medical Research Award Prize in 1956 for coordinating clinical trials that established the effect of incubator oxygen on retinopathy of prematurity (ROP). This was also a pioneering example of the multi-center clinical trial. Dr Kinsey is also recognized in NIH’s history for proposing the creation of the National Eye Institute within the National Institutes of Health (Bethesda MD). He personally convinced several renowned clinician scientists to support this idea, which resulted in the creation of the NEI by an Act of Congress in 1968. One of those doctors, Karl Kupfer, became the NEI’s first Director.

So Dr Kinsey was laying the groundwork to make my career as a vision scientist possible long before I was in high school (Grand Centre High School, Cold Lake, Alberta). The external examiner for my PhD thesis (Western University, formerly University of Western Ontario) was Mike Riley, PhD, (ERI Emeritus Professor). My first post-doctoral training at Virginia Tech resulted when an NEI scientist (Donna Garland PhD) passed my CV to John Hess and Edwin Bunce at Virginia-Tech, who were seeking a PhD to complete some lens research. My second post-doctoral fellowship was in the NEI, again when Donna Garland had already filled a post-doc position, she gave my CV to Paul Russel. So I ended up across the hallway in Paul’s lab in Bldg-6 at the NIH.

At the NIH I got an excellent education in signal transduction at the center of the biomedical research universe. Paul Russel would talk to all of us post-docs about the power of using emerging techniques to find novel and unknown proteins or protein interactions.  For example using a new method in the late 90’s called yeast-two hybrid protein interaction traps. The problem with such methods is that one is often “accused” of going on a fishing expedition by grant reviewers, while at the same time it is clear that sometimes when you go fishing you catch a fish. A posting on Dr Wistow’s bulletin board (NEI) led to my third post-doctoral training in the regulation of gene expression at the Kellogg Eye Center (U.Mich) with Anand Swaroop’s Lab group. Anand wanted a post-doc or PhD student to give yeast two-hybrid a try looking for proteins that interact with NRL (Neural Retina Leucine Zipper).

Anand also gave me the task of making and testing what we thought was the first known disease associated mutation to NRL (NRLs50t), which caused Retinitis Pigmentosa in two UK Families. No one was keen on working with yeast two-hybrid projects because what if it failed to find anything after a whole year of work? This was not a project that would just take several weeks. However, after talking with Paul Russell, I knew that this was the kind of experience that could get a guy out of post-doc’ing and into a Faculty position: experience making novel discoveries of new proteins or interactions. That is exactly what happened about 13 months after starting work in Anand’s lab at the Kellogg Eye Center. Thank God, my Wife was willing to let me take that chance, and we like it up “north” anyway.

Now, I find myself a Faculty member at Oakland University, in the Eye Research Institute founded by Dr Kinsey. I literally owe my career to Dr Kinsey, who I never had a chance to meet in person. WIthout Dr Kinsey there would be no ERI at Oakland University and there would be no NEI at the NIH. As a Canadian myself, it is also interesting that another Canadian made Oakland University possible through her generosity and vision for the people of Michigan and Oakland County: Matilda Dodge Wilson! Circles and connections continue , as I find myself with research support from the VRRF (Vision Research ROPARD Foundation) to develop and research models of retinal vascular diseases in Children. The hand of Dr Kinsey seems to still be influencing my path, a Scientist who sadly passed on just before my Graduation from high school in northern Alberta.

My story illustrates that while we are doing science we have a pay forward obligation to train students who become the next generation of scientists, engineers and medical doctors. It is impossible to pay back all of my past teachers and mentors in the complex web of fate that brought me to this point. So in science we pay-forward, introducing undergraduate science students to the real world of bioscience research. My past mentors never demanded any pay-back from me, but they expect and hope that I will pay-forward and teach science and research to the next generations. My students will not have to pay me back either, but I will hope that they one day teach at least one more person science or medicine or how to do what they do for a living. Maybe they are scientists, doctors or full time teachers, administrators, managers or focusing on teaching their own children at home.

So when things are crazy in the lab, I have lots of committee work piling up, papers or grants to write and a student comes to the door looking for a place to get their 490-independent research done, I hear myself saying “sure… have you done the University lab-safety course yet?”

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