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The Brilliance of Biochemistry: An Interview with Dr. Michael Lieberman

by Lin Abigail Tan (‘22) 

These past reading days, I had the pleasure of interviewing Dr. Michael Lieberman, professor at the University of Cincinnati College of Medicine. I’ve had Dr. Lieberman for two courses, MEDS4027: Principles of Biochemistry I and MEDS1010: History of Medicine and Technological Innovation, and I’ve enjoyed both immensely. He employs a “chalk talk” – esque lecture style, diagramming complex biochemical concepts on the whiteboard and encouraging the class to think critically through problems, all while maintaining a sense of compassion and subtle humor.  

I began the interview by asking Dr. Lieberman about his educational background and how he came to the University of Cincinnati. 

“I was always interested in science and math from grades K-3. I didn’t really care too much for English — when I had to interpret what I was reading, teachers would always say my interpretations were wrong,” he recalled, smiling. “All the colleges I applied to were strong in science and math.” 

Dr. Lieberman attended MIT, where he majored in biology. “It was a lot of fun. They made freshman year pass/fail, which took some of the pressure off. I took my first biochemistry course fifty years ago; I was fascinated by the subject and found it really easy. It just came naturally to me, so I thought, hey, let’s become a biochemist.” 

Research was a big part of Dr. Lieberman’s budding biochemistry career. He took a 16-hour-a-week lab course which “really fueled my interest in biochemical research.” After graduating MIT, Dr. Lieberman attended graduate school at Brandeis University in Massachusetts, where he met his wife (Dr. Deborah Lieberman, whom many of you know from organic chemistry lab) and obtained his PhD in biochemistry. He then completed a postdoctoral fellowship at Washington University in St. Louis, shifting his research from bacteria to mammalian cells. Afterwards, he landed his first job as assistant professor in the Department of Nutrition at the Harvard School of Public Health. 

In 1983, Dr. Lieberman joined the Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology at the University of Cincinnati College of Medicine. “Mrs. Dr. Lieberman is from Cincinnati, so she was happy to go back,” he recalled. “I liked living in Boston, so I was sad to leave, but this was a much better professional opportunity. UC is much more collaborative. There are more faculty interactions and more opportunities to work with graduate students.” 

We then proceeded to discuss biochemistry education. I was interested in how Dr. Lieberman approached such a complex subject and how he learned it for the first time. 

“When I first learned biochemistry, there were no cell phones or computers or calculators,” he explained. “There were no cell phones to take pictures of the board, so we were forced to take notes. I would study by memory — can I reproduce my notes without looking at them? I learned by writing things out, over and over again.” 

He approaches teaching by remembering what topics were confusing to him and trying to present them more clearly. However, he also challenges students to think logically and apply their knowledge to unfamiliar situations. “That shows you learned it, rather than regurgitated it.” When I asked if that was the reason for having free-response exams in MEDS4027, he agreed, but added, “I also want to give you credit for knowing something. You might know how to approach the problem but just miss one piece of it.” 

In addition to teaching, Dr. Lieberman also helps write biochemistry textbooks. One of them is Marks’ Basic Medical Biochemistry: A Clinical Approach. He has also written a board review book that helps medical students prepare for their Step 1 exam. “I never expected [to write textbooks]. I told you I hated English,” he said jokingly. 

Later, I asked Dr. Lieberman what he enjoyed the most about UCCoM’s MedSci program. He replied, “It’s the students who make the program — you guys all have interesting stories and wide and varied interests. It’s not just science, science, science.” 

I followed up with a question on what advice he would give our students. “Take care of academics,” he expressed, “but also take time out for yourself. Take a walk, do something with your friends. You can’t just study all the time. That can lead to burnout and underperformance. Do something you like to do!” 

For fun, Dr. Lieberman enjoys reading (in fact, if he could pick one superpower, it would be the ability to read extremely fast). He also enjoys attending UC basketball games with his son and walking his dogs (“they’re big, so no one bothers me when I walk them”). 

I ended the interview with a fun, open-ended question: “If you could understand one aspect of the universe, what would it be?” 

Dr. Lieberman replied that he would like to understand the immune system better. “A better knowledge of the immune system can lead to more vaccines and better ways to prevent diseases in the future. It’s hard to teach immunology; it’s too circular — unlike biochemistry, where you can start with a protein and proceed to its structure.” 

I had a wonderful time talking with Dr. Lieberman and getting to know him outside the world of proteins and enzyme kinetics. Thank you, Dr. Lieberman, for sharing your experiences with us. We are very fortunate to have you as our professor here at UC! 

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