Common journey brings three uncommon young scientists to UMKC
They are three bright, young, dedicated scientists who had offers to attend medical school, conduct research or teach at coastal powerhouses; but they have never doubted the wisdom of their decision to leave all that behind. In the opinion of these exceptional researchers, there is no better place to conduct scientific investigations than UMKC’s School of Biological Sciences.
Samuel Bouyain, Assistant Professor of Molecular Biology and Biochemistry, Erika Geisbrecht, Assistant Professor of Cell Biology and Biophysics, and Brian Geisbrecht, Associate Professor of Cell Biology and Biophysics, are SBS researchers who have found a place that meets all their needs – good teaching assignments with bright, motivated students, a facility with good resources and good connections and the freedom to conduct promising research in their own way.
Brian Geisbrecht has been at SBS the longest, seven years. He and Erika, his wife, left Johns Hopkins University to come to Kansas City: Brian to join the faculty at the School of Biological Sciences and Erika to continue her post-doctoral studies at the Stowers Institute. Erika Geisbrecht accepted a faculty position at UMKC in 2008; and soon their friend and colleague Bouyain, who completed his doctoral research at Oxford and also post-doctoral training at Johns Hopkins, headed for UMKC as well.
“There is so much opportunity here,” Brian Geisbrecht said. “Our research fits in ideally with SBS’s areas of focus. I truly believe that UMKC gave us access to everything we need to do our research.”
Similarly, Erika Geisbrecht finds many advantages to her career at SBS.
“Other faculty share my interest in Muscle Biology and Genetics. We have the equipment and space necessary to complete our research. The Graduate program draws talented PhD candidates both locally and from around the world, and we also have a plethora of Undergraduate Biology and Chemistry majors interested in research. I currently have 3 outstanding PhD students in my lab.”
The three researchers credit previous and current administrators and faculty for their foresight in making arrangements with places such as the Argonne National Laboratory in Chicago, home to an irreplaceable research tool, a modern synchrotron. “SBS paved the way and PAID the way,” they said laughingly.
Early experiences set direction
Their paths to UMKC had different origins. Erika Geisbrecht liked science and considered med school; but working in a lab during her freshman year in college convinced her that research was her calling.
“At the University of Wisconsin, I started working as an undergraduate in a lab that used genetic approaches to study plant development. By the end of 6 months, I knew I wanted to go to graduate school and continue my education and research.
“As an upperclassman, I was selected for a Developmental Biology Conference in Johannesburg, South Africa. This was a unique, 3-week opportunity where I interacted with international PIs and students. This experience solidified my desire to pursue a career in Developmental Biology.”
Brian Geisbrecht was accepted into medical school, but changed his mind when he realized that he was drawn more to the search for answers than to treating patients.
With a doctor for a mother, Bouyain knew plenty about the life of a physician. He grew up in France in an educational system that propelled him to engineering school, where he earned a degree in chemistry. A self-described geek who loves science and math, Bouyain chose a career in biochemistry.
As instructors, they expose students to a range of opportunities. Some of Erika Geisbrecht’s undergrads may be looking at medicine, nursing or pharmacy schools. Other students in advanced programs are considering academic science, government work or teaching.
Brian Geisbrecht considers the breadth of abilities his students possess.
“Some may be asking, ‘What should I do?’ It is the rare student who knows from day one that he or she wants to be a scientist,” he said.
“It is different for students after they complete their graduate work. They study various aspects of biology, but the unknown component is how you apply your knowledge. It’s like learning the violin – do you intend to play bluegrass or audition for a symphony? It’s the same skill set, just put to different uses.”
Three scientists, three specialties
Although their research takes different directions, core principles draw these scientists together.
“I study immunology,” Brian Geisbrecht said. “I am looking at the relationship between bacteria and the body’s defenses. We understand the makeup of the host cells and the invading germs, but how to alleviate a disease or symptom is the vast open space for medical research to fill.”
“From the disease perspective,” Bouyain added, “we know that the root of many illnesses – even mental conditions such as autism, depression, schizophrenia and the like – is at the molecular level. If we could improve the treatment of these conditions, we would be overjoyed.
“The technique that Brian and I are studying (protein X-ray crystallography) is a very powerful technique. It provides us with tremendous insights into how these proteins function within the cell. Moreover, it has enormous implications for what is called ‘individual medicine.’ Drug design for specific illnesses and specific patients is more commonplace now. Think of how cancer drugs are so specialized. We know that the same medicine used for the same illness may not be effective in different patients!”
When asked where her research could ultimately lead, Erika replied, “Our long-term goal is to identify and characterize new genes required in both muscle development and muscle maintenance. The basic processes and genes essential for muscle development are conserved from flies to humans, so for us to figure out what proteins are essential to form and maintain proper muscle contraction, we use the genetically tractable Drosophila melanogaster (the fruit fly) as a model organism.
“When muscles contract, they must be stably attached at the ends of the muscle for proper force generation. The ‘myotendinous junction’ is a fancy name for the site where muscles must attach to tendon cells. If the myotendinous junction does not develop correctly, or if a strong muscle-tendon attachment site is not properly maintained, muscles cannot contract. This will result in a loss of normal muscle movement.
“The body is a puzzle, and we can’t see the entire picture without all the pieces. Using genetic and biochemical approaches, we are identifying the genes we believe are the missing pieces.”
Research capabilities are plentiful
With the Internet and technology that makes remote investigation possible, their work is at hand anytime and anywhere. For the Geisbrecht family, it means doing high level studies without spending more time away from home on research trips.
When they do attend conferences, each of them has had encounters with people who don’t understand or appreciate the quality of research going on at a smaller Midwestern university. When Bouyain is asked why he chose UMKC he replies, “That’s easy. It’s a great environment where I can do work I think is important, I have a decent income and I am free to do research and publish it for my peers.”
One supporter, UMKC Chancellor Leo Morton, suggests that the proof is in their rate of success in securing funding.
“In one recent four-month stretch, the National Institutes of Health received 20,000 applications for 200 grants,” said Chancellor Leo Morton. “The fact that our SBS team is funded by the NIH tells me two things: their past research has shown great promise, and their avenues of research have a lot of potential.”
Brian Geisbrecht also had a positive way to look at UMKC’s achievements.
“You can tell where schools’ priorities are by what you associate with them. Sometimes big sports programs or a party atmosphere dwarf the meaningful things going on at those schools,” he said. “We have been able to recruit good students here because our research capabilities are known in the science community.”