Sharing His Love of Science
Charles Russell (Russ) Middaugh, Iroquois, Arapahoe, PhD, is the Higuchi Distinguished Professor of Pharmaceutical Chemistry at the University of Kansas. He is a biochemist with a passion for science and a strong desire to bring more Indian people into the sciences, particularly the biomedical sciences.
“Science is an addiction,” he says. “Once you get hooked, you can’t get away from it. Scientists don’t do the rote experiments, like you have in classrooms, where you usually know beforehand what’s going to happen. On the contrary, scientists have no idea what’s going to happen. About two-thirds of the time, the results are mysterious, so we do another experiment and then another. We ask questions. We try to put everything together and make sense of it.
“Science isn’t the right career for everyone. But for some people, once they see it and touch it and get involved in it, they know it’s their life work.”
Drawn to Science
As a young boy, Middaugh became addicted to science. “The way I got interested in research was by reading mysteries. I read a lot of Sherlock Holmes stories. But then I realized that the real mysteries of life can’t be found in mystery books. They have to do with such questions as: How does life actually work? Where does disease come from? What can we do to actually treat disease? These mysteries can be attacked, if not solved, by science.
“I was influenced in a positive way by my father who isn’t a scientist. He worked in personnel departments that employed scientists. He told me, ‘Scientists have nothing but fun. If I had my life to live over again, I’d be a scientist.’
“My father took me for long walks. We’d look at things and ask, ‘What is this? How does it work? How does it fit into the world?’ We had a great time, and doing this created a drive in me.
“My mother died very young of melanoma. It was a horrible thing to see. That had a strong influence on me wanting to do something biomedical. Now, the older I get, the more convinced I am that a good portion of research needs to be more strongly focused on specific biomedical problems. Basic science is important, but we need more funds for immediate problems. Many academic scientists wouldn’t agree with me.
“Many young Native people and Native scientists live in an environment where certain diseases, such as alcoholism and diabetes, have a major impact. This leads to their walking in the door to meet with me. I like when they do that.
“When students come to me saying they are interested in research, we get them doing research right away. They work with a post-doctoral student, a technician, or someone else. Within weeks or months, they are functioning as researchers. It’s not hard to do. They have to break through the barrier of specialized language. Scientific language isn’t as difficult as a foreign language. Within weeks, they’ll say, ‘This isn’t so hard. It’s really interesting and fun.’”
Charting his course
After completing high school in Hayword, California (the Bay area) and then spending a couple of years in the army in the late 1960s in the Viet Nam era, Middaugh attended the University of California at Santa Cruz where he earned a joint bachelor’s degree in chemistry and biology. Next he earned his PhD in biochemistry at Cornell University Graduate School of Medical Sciences. This included some work at Sloan Kettering Institute for Cancer Research. “The Kettering Institute helped stimulate my interest in making my work relevant to human disease,” he acknowledges.
“When I took my first faculty position at the University of Wyoming in the Department of Molecular Biology, my work was very human disease oriented. I worked on diseases that are involved with protein solubility, like sickle cell disease, cataract formation, and various kinds of immunological diseases. As much as I loved living and working in Wyoming, the lack of a medical center in Wyoming limited to some extent what I could do.
Working in industry
“That ultimately resulted in my working for Merck and Company [a pharmaceutical company]. They were working on a number of proteins that I was interested in. That was my first real introduction to the pharmaceutical world in any serious way. I spent about 9 years there. I was a senior scientist and was responsible for directing the departments of formulation and delivery for proteins, vaccines, and gene therapy.
“In industry people are very focused on developing drugs. Most of the research is highly focused on individual projects that have the potential to produce a product. Companies don’t survive if they don’t do that.
Working in Academia
“I liked my time in industry, but I knew there was no time to work on the many problems that interested me. In contrast, in academia the individual has a great deal of freedom to choose what he or she wants to work on. So I made the decision to return to academia.
“One of the reasons I chose the University of Kansas was because of the university’s linkages with Haskell Indian Nations University. I wanted to be more directly involved with my Indian heritage.
“Here at the University of Kansas, I have remained very focused on areas that are of interest to industry. Many of us in the department are interested in drugs and vaccines. That distinguishes us from many other academic departments. Even today I have extensive collaborations with the pharmaceutical industry.
“It takes about 2 million dollars a year to run my lab. Of that amount, close to half comes from industry. The other half is from government funds. Most other academic labs receive almost all of their funding from the government.
“Industry supplies many of the ultra expensive materials we work on. If I had to buy them it would cost me hundreds of millions of dollars. I get them for free. So that has been a huge stimulus to our current research.”
Combating Human Diseases
At the University of Kansas, Middaugh runs a large lab with about 30 people who are engaging in a variety of projects many of which focus on human diseases. “Our biggest effort right now is directed toward stabilizing vaccines for the developing world,” says Middaugh. “Most effective vaccines aren’t readily available in the developing world because they aren’t very stable. There’s no way to get them to the patient. If you have to get vaccines to a doctor’s office in a small town in Iowa, you can use trucks with refrigerators and freezers. Even our airplanes are equipped that way. We call that the “cold chain” – maintaining drugs in a cold state so they don’t become inactivated. But if you want to get a drug to a small village in Africa or South Africa or Asia, it’s another story. Sometimes even though we get them there, the drugs are inactivated by the time they arrive.
“This is a huge problem, so we’re devoting about one-third of our effort to trying to take existing vaccines and vaccines that are in development and create much more stable vaccines that can survive essentially anything. We’re also trying to get vaccines into forms where they are easy to deliver, for example, without having to use needles.
Shigellosis is a highly infectious form of dysentery caused by the shigella bacterium. We’re developing an understanding of how the organism invades cells in humans. Ultimately we’re trying to develop a vaccine. We’re also part of a consortium trying to develop a vaccine directed toward Valley Fever, a disorder that’s endemic to the Southwest, primarily California, Arizona, and New Mexico. It’s a fungus, not the usual virus or bacteria.
“We also are concerned with biomaterials, particularly spider silk. We’re trying to understand the molecular basis for its unusual properties. It’s actually stronger than steel, yet very elastic, so potentially it’s a great biomaterial. For example, you could use it to make sutures for surgery. Years ago when I was at the University of Wyoming, I worked with Randy Lewis on spider silk. When I went into industry, he kept going with the project and went much further. Now we’ve joined forces again. He has cloned all the genes for the spider silk. We already know how to make synthetic spider silk. Our goal is to make a spider silk that might even be better than the natural spider silk.
Fostering Students’ Interest in Science
Middaugh teaches in the pharmacy program at KU. He is passionate about wanting to draw students, particularly underrepresented minorities, into the sciences. He knows that entry-level courses in chemistry, physics, biology and math can be dry, so he makes science fun. “I teach a course called ‘The Scientist in Film and Literature’ where we present science and scientists in the context of novels, poetry, drama and film. It’s a fun class to teach. I change the books every time I teach. Some of the films we’ve seen are The Double Helix, Glory Enough for All, which is about the discovery of insulin, and The Band Play On, which is about HIV. A personal favorite is Never Cry Wolf. It’s about a biologist, and it has a very strong Native American context to it. [A governmental researcher is sent to study the “menace” of wolves in the North and learns about the true nature of the species.]
“I also teach courses about controversies in science, such as global warming, the origin of life, and the origin of language. One course deals with 18 controversies.
“I confess my favorite is a class on the working Border Collie. One of my hobbies is raising and training Working Border Collies. I’ve become very interested in all aspects of these dogs. The Dog Genome Project is partly focused on Border Collies because of their unusual behavior patterns. The scientists are trying to understand the genetic basis of the collie’s behavior. The course includes students visiting my sheep farm where they directly interact with dogs - from little puppies to highly trained adults. We get to see Babe and other films, including training films about Border Collies. We read a very famous book called Nop’s Trials by Donald McCaig. It’s a fun book. Many students are freshman or sophomore, but some are seniors. Most of the classes are oversubscribed. There’s lots of student participation.”
Russ Middaugh, Talia Martin (seated), Marigold Linton
Middaugh worked with Marigold Linton, Director of American Indian Outreach at KU, in writing the National Institutes of Health grants that are strengthening and increasing the biomedical science programs available to Native American students. In fact, he is principle investigator of the Institutional Research and Academic Career Development Award that supports 9 minority postdoctoral fellows who work in KU’s research laboratories and also teach at Haskell. “Having the postdocs teach at Haskell helps us to dramatically expand Haskell’s science program,” he says. “One of our goals is to make Haskell the center of American Indian science. We’re not there yet but we’re pushing it along.
“We hope all of our graduates will help American Indian students, who are interested in the sciences, find a way into the sciences.” Some graduates can do this by teaching in tribal colleges and other institutions that serve Native Americans. Others might even set up small, college-based research programs in which they can involve undergraduates.
Middaugh’s well-loved sciences classes and his mentoring are linked to the other grant projects. Linton says that Middaugh is eager to interest Haskell students in the biosciences. “He likes to have students in his lab, so when the Haskell Bridges students are in the process of selecting a KU mentor, he is often one of the first scientists to make a presentation to them about the work in his lab.”
“Any student interested in biomedical research should study as much basic mathematics, chemistry, physics, and biology as possible,” recommends Middaugh. “The stronger your background in physical chemistry and physics, the better equipped you are to enter modern science. .
“Also, read, read, read all the time. Read about many different things, both within and outside of science. For most scientists, creativity arises from seeing relationships that other people haven’t seen. By reading outside your own area and bringing new ways of looking at the world to science, you can sometimes make creative breakthroughs.
“Many people have trouble being creative because they come at the subject the same way that they’ve been trained. It’s hard to be innovative when you’ve been trained only in a specific way.
“Most students today don’t have good communication skills. That really hurts them. When you read, I think it’s also important to pay attention to the way people express themselves. Both written and spoken communication skills are of extreme value in science.”
Challenges and Rewards
“For some Native American students, entering the biomedical sciences is a little like walking into a room filled with people that you don’t know who are doing things you don’t understand. After bumbling around for a few minutes, it’s easy to just walk out. But I think the best thing you can do is find someone who’s sympathetic and interested in you. Grab on to that person a little bit. People want to help you. Give them a chance to help you. Let them slowly bring you in. It’s not an easy thing. But it’s absolutely worth it.
“When I get up in the morning, I look forward to coming in to work. I never say, ‘Ah, I wish I didn’t have to go to work today.’ I know that something interesting happens every day. Sure, there are some problems. But the awards far exceed the problems!”
This article was originally published in the Summer 2005 issue of Winds of Change. (The cover artist is the late Roy Thomas, Ojibwa (1949-2004).