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Of Crickets and Pure Poetry

By Barry Zirkin

The first time I saw a notice for a meeting of the Society for the Study of Reproduction, I thought it was a joke. It was 1969, and I was a postdoc at UC Davis. I thought, people do it, but nobody really studies it.

Boy, was I wrong.

As a cell biologist at the time, I was actually studying sperm, but not for its reproductive properties. I wanted to know how DNA was packed in the sperm cell's head (or nucleus), how that packing affected DNA's function, and why DNA's compaction was so different in different species. The questions were pure basic science and, at the time, that was enough. In those days, my work didn't need to have anything to do with health. I didn't know much about "translation." I was studying nature—a biologist's version of poetry. And so I dissected the testes of frogs, goldfish, sea urchins, salmon, crickets, cockroaches, milkweed bugs and, later, mammals. (The salmon studies provided both genetic insights and tasty dinners.)

After my postdoc, I joined the Illinois Institute of Technology's biology department as an assistant professor. I was publishing, getting grants, teaching and settling into a comfortable position. But I became restless when I realized that I was publishing my thesis over and over, with different species. Boredom set in. I began to wonder if anyone cared about the esoteric things that I was discovering about chromatin packing in different species. Did this have any relevance to the outside world? It's hard not to wonder about that when you're studying cricket gonads. I mean, what sane adult devotes his life's work to roaches and their testicles? The science intrigued me, but I always wondered, is that all there is?

So in December 1973, I took an assistant professorship in the Division of Reproductive Biology, then part of the Population Dynamics department at the School. I didn't know what Population Dynamics implied, nor what a School of Hygiene and Public Health did, and I didn't consider myself to be a reproductive biologist. But they needed an electron microscopist (and preferably someone with a reliable jump shot for department basketball games). What I found was exciting and launched my second career.

Steeped in the public health culture, I began to think more about the application of the basic science to issues directly related to human health and well-being such as contraception, infertility, aging and disease.

Even though I am not a physician or a public health practitioner, the basic science that I was doing became richer when I recognized its relationship to public health. It was intriguing to study testosterone production and its regulation, but even more satisfying because of its implications for human health and quality of life. So now as I am studying testosterone-producing Leydig cells and trying to unlock their secrets, I also am thinking about 80-year-old men with osteoporosis and frailty that results from reduced testosterone. When I study sperm formation, including the regulation of cell proliferation and cell death, I think about how this knowledge might translate to understanding why not all men respond to hormone-based male contraception.

I like going to meetings with a physician, a cell biologist and an epidemiologist where we're all talking about the same issue but from very different perspectives. We all feed off each other. I always have appreciated that basic science has enormous worth in and of itself. But its application to human health also fascinates me. The intersection of basic and translational research drives me, and will continue to do so for the remainder of my career.

So I may not spend all my time with biology's pure poetry, but that's okay. I'm happiest being a translator. 

No joke.