Biochemist, ethicist,
pastor, chaplain

Published February 02 2017

A bench-to-bedside journey, but not in the conventional sense. A bench-to-bedside journey, but not in the conventional sense. PHOTO PROVIDED BY CRAIG MALBON

I sit at a patient’s bedside. The patient is suffering and dying. I pause to reflect. From my earliest training in biochemistry at Case Western Reserve University through my postgraduate training at Brown University and Harvard University, I recall the phrase “from bench to bedside.” The holy grail in biomedical research always has been to move a discovery made at the bench to a bedside therapeutic designed to alleviate suffering and disease. Although I have had no therapeutic derivative from my research approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, I still travel from the bench to the bedside as a bivocational scientist, ordained minister and chaplain. So, in some deep way, I made the bench-to-bedside journey, just not the way I would have expected early in my career.

I began my research training in 1972, when I arrived at Case Western as a graduate student, keen to learn biochemistry at the place where the discovery of cyclic AMP and its role in cell signaling just was emerging. My training later at Brown was in fat-cell and hepatocyte isolation. Cell signaling was the hot topic of the time, I also spent nearly a year commuting to Harvard to study cholera toxin action with Michael Gill in the laboratory of Alwin “Pap” Pappenheimer. Those were halcyon days, a time of camaraderie and competitive efforts to hone research skills.

In 1977, I joined the faculty of a brand-new medical school built at Stony Brook on Long Island. The new 3-million nominal-square-foot Health Sciences Center had research labs on the same floor as acute and long-term clinical services. It was an experiment in research and health care design. It also was the site of my first independent laboratory.

Over the years, my laboratory was prosperous. We made discoveries in cell signaling, such as Wnt signaling, as well as in factors provoking breast cancer, such as the hyperphosphorylation of MAP kinases. We recently made some inroads into familial exudative vitreoretinopathy. When I was offered a position elsewhere, my institution made a competitive counteroffer that kept me on Long Island for 39 years. My colleagues and I have published more than 250 articles, book chapters and reviews and have garnered generous support from the National Institutes of Health, the American Cancer Society and the American Heart Association.

After getting a taste for research administration, I was appointed associate dean in the medical school by Jordan Cohen in 1988. Later, I was appointed founding vice president for research by the late John Marburger III. These two mentors shaped my administrative skills and were generous with their time. As a vice president of a research-intensive university, I was launched into discussions about science policy at the national level. I much enjoyed my years on the Science & Technology Steering Committee of Brookhaven National Laboratory, where I made many friends in the fields of physics and cosmology.

In 2000, I had created a new dimension to the competitive renewal of a national research service award program. It included efforts to offer training in bioethics for all program members as well as staff involved in institutional clinical trials. Perplexed by moral issues posed by clinical faculty who confronted suffering, death and end-of-life decisions, I reached out to professional ethicists. I assembled universitywide teaching faculty to offer a short course in bioethics. The course provided lectures and discussion followed by a meal. It was a great success, and I spent time more deeply thinking about ethics. Clinical faculty who attended the course continued to challenge the group with issues about early termination of pregnancy as well as palliative sedation. My inability adequately to plumb the depths of their issues about treatment outcomes and life-and-death decisions stimulated greater discernment.

In 2005, I left senior administration. I focused on my laboratory and an institutional postgraduate National Research Service Award program funded by the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases that I directed along with the Diabetes & Metabolic Diseases Research Program.

When I left senior administration, I grabbed the opportunity to spend time as a visiting scholar at Princeton Theological Seminary. There I had many conversations with formally trained ethicists. I entered a new world. There was a library with more than 2,000 periodicals and more than 1 million bound volumes (it’s the second-largest theological library in the world, surpassed only by the one at the Vatican). Most of the work was alien to me.

The weekends I spent at PTS were formative. I concluded that to do scholarship in ethics, I needed to train formally. I set my sights on Union Theological Seminary in New York City. Union has a 175-year history of wrestling with issues of social justice and human rights. Competition for placement in a very small entering class in the divinity master’s degree program seemed like a long shot for a biomedical scientist in his mid-50s competing with the highest caliber of 20-somethings.

I negotiated two half-years free from teaching and committees at my home institution but still managed the lab work and grant writing. This was in lieu of the four full sabbatical years that I forewent while in administration. The institution was generous in its understanding of my goals. I applied for admission to Union fully aware that balancing the demands of my laboratory with seminary life would be a challenge. I surely was the last student admitted in my year, having been screened by faculty as well as Union President Joseph Hough.

Seminary work was the most demanding academic experience of my life. The reading assignments at first seemed crippling, but I was in wonder just to arrive at the seminary each day. I trained under Gary Dorrien, who was kind and supportive. During my training in ethics, I was co-opted by my classmates to give a sermon and reflection at the noontime chapel service that the entire school body attended. I suppose it was my senior status within this group of talented and committed students from all the great universities that prompted me to accept the task. In spite of being on the lecture and Gordon Conference circuit for several decades, I was challenged by the task of offering biblical exegesis and personal reflection in a seminary. It was not a lecture with PowerPoint slides!

After the sermon, Hough came and asked me again the goal of my studies. I replied, “Ethics.” Hough said, “Malbon, I think it is more than that” and smiled. In the next three years, I graduated from Union, was ordained as a minister and trained as a chaplain!

My laboratory has downsized and continues to interrogate large scaffold proteins, such as AKAPs and Dishevelleds, which physically integrate complex intracellular signaling pathways. Just this month, we are using cryoelectron microscopy for the task of understanding AKAP structure! Additionally, I teach ethics in the medical and graduate schools. My chaplaincy focuses on end-of-life counseling of individuals and families. I pastor at a large 350-year-old church whose active congregation includes scientists, clinicians and other university faculty.

I am deeply thankful for the support that I’ve received from my family, community and institutions. Is my biomedical research concluded? I think not, as we are back to writing grant applications. The cosmology of my life, I have discerned, is a series of callings, first to science and then to chaplaincy. Who knows what comes next?

Craig Malborn Craig Malborn holds the title of leading professor and is affiliated with the departments of pharmacology and of preventive medicine in the school of medicine at Stony Brook University.