“Science is not just Marie Curie and Louis Pasteur and people who lived years ago,” says cell biologist Tom Rutkowski. “Real and regular people are making discoveries that are every bit as critical” as the well-known historical discoveries.
Rutkowski, a former HHMI predoctoral fellow in cell biology at the University of California, San Francisco, and currently a postdoctoral associate in the lab of HHMI investigator Randal J. Kaufman at the University of Michigan, rues the relatively low interest in science careers in the United States compared with the interest in medicine, law, or engineering.
“A lot of kids don’t necessarily understand how dynamic science is,” he says. “Children don’t see a lot of role models, and schools generally don’t emphasize how intrinsically interesting it is. If there is more aggressive outreach, if it’s presented the right way, kids are going to think it’s cool.”
Rutkowski’s own interest in science began in seventh grade when his class dissected frogs. “I was fascinated to be looking inside an animal,” he recalls. So fascinated that he brought the specimen home to show his mom. “She was kind of disgusted,” he recalls. Nowadays, he is happy to mostly avoid working with animals. Not for squeamish reasons, he says, but because he finds animals more vexing than cell cultures for solving some basic biological puzzles. “No matter how inbred the mice are, there are still differences animal to animal that will cloud your results. And they make more noise,” he laughs.
Rutkowski got his first taste of research when he was in high school in St. Louis, working for a summer with biologists at nearby Washington University. While there, he began to see the potential for scientific research to be his career, he says. “Once I realized I could make a living at it, I never thought to do anything else.”
His expertise is in the secretory pathway, in particular the role of the endoplasmic reticulum in folding, processing, and secreting proteins, and the pathways that are designed to protect the organelle and the cell from environmental stresses that perturb them. Working with cultured cells as a model system, he tries to answer such basic questions as how a cell senses stress and how it chooses between protective and apoptotic pathways when confronted with stress. “Most of the time, cells survive, so there has to be some mechanism by which they turn on adaptive responses rather than committing suicide.” Understanding how these decisions are made, he hopes, will ultimately lead to new approaches in the treatment of chronic diseases caused by environmental stress, such as diabetes or neurodegenerative conditions.
Rutkowski plans to stay in academics, having tried a couple of summers working in industry. “I like the intellectual freedom of academics and enjoy teaching,” he says.
He has answered Ask a Scientist questions for nine years. He says he intentionally likes to leave his answers open-ended to prompt further thought. “It’s not the job of the person answering the question to say dogmatically, ‘This is how it is.’ There are a lot of processes out there that aren’t understood and it’s reasonable to speculate. It always amazes me to hear people pontificate that a field in science is ‘done.’”
Author: Cathy Kristiansen