August 2011

An interview with Kevin Pruitt

Pruitt is an assistant professor at Louisiana State University Health Sciences Center in Shreveport, La. where he teaches graduate and medical students and carries out research focusing on breast cancer epigenetics. 

ASBMB: Tell us about your current career position.  
Pruitt: I am an assistant professor at the Louisiana State University Health Sciences Center at Shreveport in the department of molecular and cellular physiology. Most of my time is spent directing a research laboratory, but I also teach graduate and medical students, review grants for the National Institutes of Health and U.S. Department of Defense, and serve on various committees such as the medical school admission committee. As a member of the Feist-Weiller Cancer Center, our group focuses on breast cancer epigenetics with a special emphasis on the role of Wnt signaling and sirtuin proteins. Our most recent work reveals a surprising link between Dishevelled proteins (major regulators of Wnt signaling) and two members of the sirtuin deacetylases (SIRT1 and SIRT2). We also are very interested in understanding the transcriptional regulation of the aromatase gene.

ASBMB: What are the key experiences and decisions you made that have helped you reach your current position?  
Pruitt: The first experience that helped set my current trajectory occurred during one of the summers when I was an undergraduate studying chemical engineering. I conducted summer research at the Los Alamos National Laboratory where I was exposed to mass spectrometry, molecular biology and innovative techniques that would facilitate sequencing of the human genome. This experience gave me great exposure to biomedical research and ignited a passion that has grown more intense over the years. Perhaps the best thing that can happen in life is for one to be exposed to his or her passion early on in an environment that is both supportive and exciting. Afterwards, the next key decisions involved choosing excellent mentors (Channing Der at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill and Stephen Baylin at Johns Hopkins University) for my doctoral and postdoctoral training, respectively.

ASBMB: How did you first become interested in science?  
Pruitt: As long as I can remember I have always been interested in science but I do recall a moment in high school in my chemistry class where I was utterly fascinated with the periodic chart. There seemed to be something both mystical and logical about it that intrigued me.

ASBMB: Were there times when you failed at something you felt was critical to your path? If so, how did you regroup and get back on track?  
Pruitt: The work I discussed above was submitted as part of a grant proposal early on but was not funded. I knew it was novel and established a unique link in cancer biology, but still the application was unsuccessful. Though I was very disappointed, members of my lab and I regrouped, continued to investigate the link in preparation for publication. In the interim, we secured R01 funding from the NIH on a second separate major focus of the lab. Combining hard work, passion and flexibility is important for success in science.

ASBMB: What advice would you give to young persons from under-represented backgrounds who want to pursue a career in science similar to yours?  
Pruitt: As early as possible get involved in an undergraduate research program. If this is not an option, read about the different laboratory research on campus and whichever research sounds the most interesting, go to the principal investigator and ask for an opportunity to get research experience. This will help open doors and provide an opportunity to see if laboratory research suits your personality, strengths and career ambitions.

ASBMB: What are your hobbies?  
Pruitt: I like to run, especially on trails in new areas not previously explored. I also enjoy creative writing and reading about principles of effective leadership.

ASBMB: What was the last book you read?  
Pruitt: I routinely read multiple books at once, and the last ones read in parallel include "Take the Risk" by Benjamin Carson, and "Splendid Solution: Jonas Salk and the Conquest of Polio" by Jeffrey Kluger.

ASBMB: Do you have any heroes, heroines or role models? If so, describe how they have influenced you?  
Pruitt: My view here may be a little bit unconventional because I find great inspiration from the lives of many people who have excelled in their respective fields, especially when their accomplishment required Herculean effort, discipline and passion. I take the best attributes from each person such as previous mentors, scientists, athletes, ministers, family members and literary giants and make my own collage of heroic inspiration. This helps me continue along my path at the right pace when the pressure mounts and the sun begins to set.

ASBMB: What is it that keeps you working hard and studying science every day?  
Pruitt: Uncovering hidden treasures of biological systems is immensely gratifying, especially being the first to do so. This feeling that accompanies discovery is similar to the deep satisfaction of stumbling upon a special heirloom that was lost or misplaced for years. Likewise, whether the discovery is intentional or serendipitous, when it is made there is an interesting merging of the unfamiliar and familiar. While this discovery may be seen for the first time in this new biological context, this "fact of nature" was there all along but just had to be found.

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