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The Joy of Genetics: An Interview with Dr. David Wieczorek

by Lin Abigail Tan (’22)

Last week, I had the privilege of interviewing Dr. David Wieczorek, professor and director of admissions of the Medical Sciences program at the University of Cincinnati. I’ve had Dr. Wieczorek for two courses, Fundamentals of Molecular Genetics and Human Medical Genetics, and I greatly admire his articulate lecture style, presentation of current research alongside key concepts, and overall passion for the subject. I wanted to get his insight on the MedSci program and the pandemic’s effect on education, as well as how he came to UC.

Born in upstate New York, Dr. Wieczorek moved with his family to the San Francisco Bay Area when he was three. During high school, he volunteered at a couple of summer camps for mentally disabled individuals and worked at a respite house, a service that provides temporary relief for primary caregivers. This interest led him to work at a mental health facility while attending college at University of California, Berkeley, where he majored in Genetics. There, he also played the clarinet and saxophone as part of the marching band.

His senior thesis at Berkeley was on drug treatments for schizophrenia, a relatively unknown area of study at the time. He was able to shadow psychiatrists and sit in on patient visits. “You met all sorts of patients and logged the conversations. Sometimes it was physically taxing, like when we had to occasionally restrain patients. It was an interesting situation.”

After graduating from UC Berkeley, he decided to pursue a Master’s degree in human genetics and genetic counseling at Rutgers University. He then obtained a PhD in Developmental Genetics, with his dissertation in muscular dysgenesis, a mutation in mice that causes failure in the excitation-contraction coupling of skeletal muscle. At Rutgers, he also met his wife, Dorothy, from the English department, and they got married when they were both in their respective graduate programs.

Dr. Wieczorek then decided to complete a postdoc. “While I was in graduate school, the whole field of molecular biology exploded — restriction enzymes, DNA recombination, [etc.]. Timing plays a role with a lot of things in life. I happened to be reading an article in PNAS [Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, a multidisciplinary scientific journal], and I saw this group that cloned partial sequences of contractile protein genes at Albert Einstein [College of Medicine] in the Bronx.” He reached out to the principal investigator in order to learn more about the research.

Impressed with Dr. Wieczorek’s critical thinking abilities, the PI invited him to the lab, and the lab moved to the Cardiology Department at Harvard Medical School. He soon got involved in two projects: one analyzed the myriad isoforms for myosin heavy chain in the extraocular muscles of the eye (utilized during REM or sight fixation, for example). The other project examined unique isoforms of tropomyosin in muscle, the cytoskeleton, brain and liver cells. I was impressed to learn this lab was also the first to discover alternative splicing. Dr. Wieczorek remarked that this work brought him back to his PhD training, where he’d take muscle cell cultures and treat them with nerve extracts to convert muscle tropomyosin isoforms to cytoskeletal isoforms.

After about four years, Dr. Wieczorek moved to Cincinnati. It had a strong, molecular genetics department, with strong cardiovascular interests at UC at the time, so he shifted his research towards cardiology. He and his team developed mouse models for hypertrophic and dilated cardiomyopathies, and also examined chimeric tropomyosin molecules with different domains, structure/function relationships, and even found a novel form in humans. “We [my wife and I] never thought we’d stay here,” Dr. Wieczorek said laughingly. “But [Cincinnati’s] a great place to raise kids, and we really enjoyed the community, the cooperativity of our colleagues, and the professionalism of the research environment.”

I then asked him about his opinions on the MedSci program. “I really like the people involved. Anil [Menon] and I get along very well, and I enjoy different people in different ways. I like the fact that we were able to establish a program that is geared towards something tangible, like getting people to medical school or graduate school. Whenever I teach, I see how intelligent, driven, and multi-dimensional the students are. They challenge themselves.”

Regarding the COVID-19 pandemic on education, he stated, laughing, “It’s forced me to become more computer savvy. Some people really enjoy the ability to stay home, view lectures online, and focus themselves. Others have a difficult time not being able to interact with people. I prefer being at the front of the class teaching.”

We concluded the interview with a few fun questions. I was surprised to learn Dr. Wieczorek did Russian and Tahitian stick dancing during his time at UC Berkeley, even performing in the Los Angeles Coliseum. His hobbies now include gardening with his grandchildren, cooking, and reading a wide genre of works, including David Copperfield by Charles Dickens. When I asked him if he could understand anything about the universe, he replied, “I want to know why some people act the way they do. I want them to act differently, more humanely, and actually listen to one another.”

I had a great time talking with Dr. Wieczorek and getting to know such a brilliant individual in and outside the classroom. Thank you, Dr. Wieczorek, for your time and effort, and we’re very fortunate to have you in our Medical Sciences program here at UC.

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