Meet Dennis Voelker
Dennis Voelker at National Jewish Health in Denver recently joined the ranks of the associate editors at the Journal of Biological Chemistry. His laboratory focuses on phospholipid biology. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.Dennis Voelker
Would you briefly explain what your research group is studying?
My lab is focused on multiple aspects of the cell and molecular biology of phospholipids.
One problem we have investigated for many years addresses the genetics and biochemistry of intracellular phospholipid transport required for membrane biogenesis in eukaryotes. Our interest in phospholipids also has brought us to interesting problems directed at understanding the metabolism and transport of these molecules in parasites, especially apicomplexan parasites, such as Toxoplasma gondii and Plasmodium falciparum.
Another area of interest is pulmonary surfactant phospholipids. Extraordinarily high levels of phospholipids are present in a secreted lipid-and-protein complex that lines the alveolar compartment of the lung, where gas exchange occurs. We recently found that some of the minor surfactant phospholipids function as very potent regulators of innate immunity, especially the Toll-like receptors.
Tell us about your academic background and research training. Did anything occur, in a milestone sort of way, that made you choose science as a career?
My undergraduate studies were at Indiana University. I was enrolled in the multidisciplinary program in biological sciences, which, in addition to didactic teaching, placed heavy emphasis upon experimental approaches to understanding science and testing ideas. This exceptional program was developed by C.H. Werner Hirs and Anthony G. San Pietro. It was commonplace in this curriculum in both class discussions and exams to be presented with statements such as “Here is one emerging model of a biological process. Design an experiment to critically test this model.”
This exposure profoundly changed my perception of science: I went from thinking of it as a passive discipline of assimilating factual material to an active process of identifying the limits of our understanding and executing experiments to develop new knowledge. This experience as an undergraduate had the greatest influence upon my choosing a career in science. All of my teachers within this program made a strong impression upon me, and I feel a lifelong debt of gratitude to them.
My graduate studies were at Oak Ridge National Laboratory. My thesis mentor was Fred Snyder, who conducted groundbreaking work in defining the mechanisms of ether-linked glycerolipid synthesis. At the time I joined the lab, Fred was developing an interest in the lipids of pulmonary surfactant and factors controlling their synthesis. This latter project caught my interest and became the focus of my thesis research. I believe I have the dubious distinction of being the only trainee in the Snyder lab not to work on ether-linked glycerolipids.
My postdoctoral studies were performed at Harvard Medical School with Eugene P. Kennedy, who is arguably the most important scientist in elucidating the biochemistry of glycerolipid synthesis. Like many who worked in this laboratory, I continually was impressed by the breadth of his knowledge of biochemistry and his ability to formulate incisive questions. He was an enthusiastic proponent of the gedankenexperiment as a means to get students and postdocs to think actively about their lines of experimentation. He also challenged trainees to think about where the broader boundaries of a field lie and to have the intellectual courage to try to address them. I always have considered it a privilege to have known Gene personally and to have benefited from his exemplary scholarship and intellectual prowess.
When did you join the ranks of the JBC associate editors? What does it mean to you, on a personal level, to be an associate editor for JBC? What was your reaction when you were asked to be an associate editor?
I was invited to be an associate editor in November 2013 and assumed the duties in March. I must admit that my first reaction to the invitation to be an associate editor was one of trepidation, especially since I had concerns about the workload and my other commitments. Prior to assuming this position, I had served on the editorial board for three five-year cycles. I certainly consider it an honor and a privilege but also a serious responsibility to serve the JBC as an associate editor. For me, personally, the position is an important affirmation of the trust my colleagues have in me to apply high scientific standards, balanced judgment and fairness to the review process.
Do you have any advice for balancing life inside and outside of the lab?
I would like to tell you that, with all my years of experience, I have developed a clear way to balance the two. But I have not. I still spend long days at the lab, and grant-writing periods demand even more time. I think, for most in this profession, it is best to accept that life will be hectic and that adjustments to work and family demands just need to be made continually, sometimes on a daily basis. My wife is also a scientist, and we continue to wrestle with these issues. Many years ago, both of us decided on one element of our lives that would be invariant, and that is family vacations in the summer and winter. Our family never has regretted that decision, and it is one piece of advice I always offer to my junior colleagues.
What do you do outside of the lab? Hobbies?
My wife and I live in Colorado, and we spend much of our free time hiking and backcountry skiing. We are also both avid birdwatchers. I enjoy cycling and have done the 500-mile Ride the Rockies Tour twice in recent years.
For scientists in training, do you have any words of wisdom or a favorite motto?
I like to remind students and postdoctoral fellows that good science is always a battle between successes and failures. One would do well to experience and learn from both and persist in the effort. One of my favorite quotes about the broad perspective of scientists and science was written by Eugene P. Kennedy and appeared at the end of his prefatory article in the Annual Review of Biochemistry in 1992: “The anonymity that is the fate of nearly every scientist as the work of one generation blends almost without a trace into that of the next is a small price to pay for its unending progress, the great long march of human reason … To feel that one has contributed to this splendid enterprise, on however small a scale, is reward enough for labor at the end of the day.”
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