Microbiology

  • Al Klingelhutz, Ph.D. - Carver College of Medicine Faculty Focus Interview

    What is your hometown?

    Chanhassen, MN, a suburb of Minneapolis.

    When did you join the UI faculty?

    1999

    How/when did you become interested in science?

    In many ways, my interest in science just seemed natural from the beginning. While I was growing up on a farm in Minnesota, I was always fascinated with the many animals and plants that were around me. When I was 7 or so, my Dad bought an old incubator at an auction and I started hatching duck and chicken eggs. I remember scrutinizing our family set of encyclopedias (no internet in those days) to learn as much as I could about development. I just couldn't stop after that. I was fortunate that my parents placed a high priority on schoolwork and that I had extremely good teachers in both elementary and high school that helped to promote my interest in science.

    What interested you to pursue a career in microbiology?

    When I was in graduate school in Madison, I worked in a cancer biology lab on a thesis project that involved using a virus called SV40 to immortalize human bladder cells. During that time, I became very intrigued with how viruses could transform cells. For my postdoc, I chose a laboratory at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle that was studying how human papillomavirus (HPV) caused cervical cancer. It became very clear to me during that time just how interesting the field of virology was. Viruses can do things that we are only just beginning to understand. They have certainly taught us a great deal about how cells work and how the body functions. Many of the findings have been unexpected and have led to new lines of research. My work on HPV, for example, has provided the basis for studies on the aging process. Certainly, there is still a lot to be learned from these tiny and efficient parasites.

    Is there a teacher or mentor who helped shape your career?

    There are many teachers that made a difference in my life. I had a particularly gifted teacher in high school named Mr. Kinkle who really encouraged my interest in biology. I was also fortunate to have caring and outstanding science teachers in my undergraduate years at Saint John's University in Minnesota. In graduate school at Madison, my thesis advisor, Catherine Reznikoff, inspired in me a passion for cancer research. My postdoctoral advisor, James McDougall, who recently passed away, taught me how to be professional while still maintaining a sense of humor about things.

    When did you come to the University of Iowa as a faculty member? How or why did you choose the UI?

    I arrived in the fall of 1999. When I started looking for jobs, I was really unsure about Iowa because I knew so little about it. When I interviewed here, I discovered just how special it really was. Here was a major university with world-class research in a "small town" environment. I am still amazed that we were able to afford a house in a great neighborhood within walking distance to work. I was also impressed with the University in how much emphasis was placed on high-caliber teaching. It wasn't that hard to convince me that this would be a great place to be.

    What kinds of professional opportunities or advantages does being a faculty member at Iowa provide? What about challenges?

    One of the best things about the University of Iowa is just how easy it is to collaborate with other researchers and clinicians. From the beginning, it seemed like people were knocking down my door to work together on projects. I have been able to establish a number of very fruitful collaborations because of this. Many of these studies, particularly those done with physician scientists, have translational potential. I view myself as a basic scientist, so it is kind of rewarding to see how your research could someday be useful in the clinic to treat or prevent human disease. The Holden Cancer Center has also been a strong point for me and I was very fortunate to move into the new building when it opened. The Cancer Center has really helped to bring people from different disciplines together to tackle very complex problems. I have also been impressed with the support I have received from the Department of Microbiology. The strong basic science departments here at the University of Iowa are extremely important for fostering research and high-quality teaching.

    Perhaps one challenge of being in Iowa is that it is sometimes hard to compete with other institutions and schools on the coasts and elsewhere in attracting graduate students and postdocs. We attract good people, but it often takes more effort.

    Please describe your professional interests.

    My primary research interest has been in how epithelial cells become immortal and subsequently malignant after infection with human papillomavirus (HPV). We are specifically examining how HPV activates telomerase, an enzyme that adds back telomere repeats to the ends of chromosomes. This work has led to studies on the roles of telomerase and telomeres in regulating cellular response to genotoxic stress and in the development of genetic instability during carcinogenesis. We have also initiated research on how telomere shortening is involved in the aging process. Additional work focuses on how a tumor suppressor protein called p16 is involved in cellular senescence and suppression of metastasis. For many of our projects, we are utilizing state-of-the-art genomic and bioinformatic approaches to address specific scientific questions.

    In addition to my laboratory interests, I have also been extensively involved in teaching virology, cell biology, and cancer biology to undergraduate and graduate students. I serve on several committees related to graduate student recruitment and graduate student advising. I am very much committed to promoting and facilitating research at the University of Iowa and am currently serving on a large number of College of Medicine, Holden Cancer Center, and University research-related committees.

    What are some of your outside interests?

    When I have time, I enjoy discovering new places through traveling, sampling different wines and foods with my wife and friends, and bike riding and hanging out with my son.

    Do you have an insight or philosophy that guides you in your professional work?

    Scientific progress is not always correlated with hard work, but you have to be there and be ready or you will miss important opportunities and interesting discoveries. You have to pay attention to details, stay determined, and put your best effort forward.

    If you could change one thing about the world (or the world of research), what would it be?

    Certainly, what is on most scientists' minds right now is the funding situation. I would like people to realize just how important it is to fund research, both basic and translational. There is a real risk that our competitive edge in research and technology will be lost because of the lack of funding. It is going to hurt the present generation of scientists and will dissuade students from going into science. I am not sure if people realize what a good deal it is to fund research. The payback is enormous in terms of knowledge gained, saved healthcare costs, reduction of pain and suffering, and technological advances.

    What is the biggest change you've experienced in your field since you were a graduate student?

    There have been many changes. Technological advances in genomics and bioinformatics have significantly changed the research landscape. There is now an amazing capacity to generate large amounts of information in single experiments. A challenge will be to figure out what it all means. Another big change is in how scientists work. It is now essential for researchers from many disciplines to work together towards the same goal. The "lone wolf" laboratories are becoming a thing of the past and there is more of an emphasis on larger laboratories. This is both good and bad. Larger laboratories are better at pulling together resources and people, but there is the potential of losing certain aspects of creativity.

    What one piece of advice you would give to today's students?

    Stay determined, work hard, seek advice, and remain open to new ideas.

    What do you see as "the future" of microbiology?

    There will always be an enormous interest in and need for the discipline of microbiology. Microorganisms have such a profound role in our everyday life and in our wellbeing. Emerging viruses and other pathogens will continue to be a problem. The uses of microorganisms as tools to treat disease, such as through gene therapy, or to improve our environment are only beginning to be realized. As we continue to identify and characterize microorganisms in more detail, the interrelatedness and complexity of life on earth is going to become even more apparent. It is really a very exciting time to be in science.

    President Skorton named 2005 as the "Year of Public Engagement." In what ways are you engaged with the greater Iowa public?

    I continue to look for creative ways to utilize my scientific expertise to educate and engage the general public. It is our responsibility as scientists to do so. Recently, I was involved the college’s Mini Medical School program. In this series, I gave a lecture entitled "A Mini Tour of the Theories of Aging" to over 150 members of the community. I was also a participant at a Cervical Cancer Conference Symposium at Des Moines University that was specifically for the purpose of educating the student and local community on topics related to cervical cancer. These were some of the most positive and rewarding experiences I have had as an educator, and it is my hope to continue to participate in such activities.

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