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Dr. William Duax - Science Mentor

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Dr. William Duax - Science Mentor

After over 40 years of distinguished work in molecular biophysics and crystallography at the Hauptman-Woodward Medical Research Institute, Duax has found an unlikely ally in his quest to unravel the mysteries of life: teenagers. Duax is the founder and lead mentor of HWI’s high school program, which invites students to take a hands-on role in cutting edge research examining the structure and fabric of life on earth. Currently Duax is a candidate for the $10,000 Time Warner Cable Super Connector Search, a contest for those who encourage science and technology to young people in their communities. To vote for Bill visit

First off, tell us a little bit about your work with the Hauptman-Woodward Institute’s program. How did you get involved with high school students?

I was studying the relationship between the structures of female hormones that stimulate breast cancer growth and the structures of drugs commonly used to combat breast cancer with funding from the National Institutes of Health. I wanted to show young people how exciting and rewarding scientific discovery can be. Over 25 years ago I began bringing groups of 20 high school students to the HWI to learn about crystallography, make molecular models and have lunch with Nobel Laureate Herbert Hauptman. Talking to Herb was the part they liked best. When I learned about a remarkable program started by City Honors High School and Roswell Park that allowed High School students to spend every Fridays as apprentices in research laboratories I volunteered to be a mentor. When students in other schools in the area learned about the program, I began an after school mentoring program that grew into a month-long summer school.

What are you hoping to accomplish by creating an extensive database of genetic code?

The complete genomes of over 5,000 living species account for over 20 million genes in the world’s gene banks. The proteins produced by these genes include insulin, hemoglobin and growth hormones critical to our health and the toxins that threaten us. Unfortunately we do not know what 70 percent of these genes do or whether they are even real. By tracing the evolution of a family of proteins that are present in all living things that have not changed in shape for over 3 billion years, my students and I will separate the real proteins from the false, create an accurate evolutionary tree of all life, and identify the last universal common ancestor—the oldest living species from the bacterial phylum from which all living things descended. The good news is that we didn’t descend from monkeys. The bad news is that we descended from Fungi. Adam was a FunGuy and Eve was a Fun Gal.

How has working with young people energized your own interest in science and research?

My students are a continuing source of joy and inspiration. They are self selected for excellence. The application to be in the program asks them to explain why they want to be in the program and what in their past makes them think that will be a good scientist. Most want to go into biomedical research because someone dear to them has a debilitating disease. One example is a girl who got 20 classmates in her fifth grade to knit hats for kids at Roswell undergoing chemotherapy. All these young women and men are going to have a positive impact on the world. My students have shown me how to communicate science to the public.

Where would your research be without the aid of the students who have helped you over the years?

Because our goals are controversial and considered by a majority of biologists in the world to be impossible, I have no funding for the research program. I have received some support from friends and local charities for the training program. Those funds have been used to provide stipends to some of the high school students and college student mentors and programmers, and for computers and supplies.

I have been working on this project for about 14 years without support. In the past four years the students have generated the data needed to substantiate our conclusions and the students are writing manuscripts that we will submit to national and international journals

What are some of the early findings you’ve achieved thanks to your work mapping the genetic code of bacteria?

We have a significant body of data that supports our conclusion that the bacterial phylum of Actinobacteria (which includes the bacteria causing tuberculosis and leprosy) includes the Last Universal Common Ancestor (LUCA). We can also demonstrate that at least six species in that phylum use only half of the coding system used in man. (The code used in man is erroneously called the universal genetic code.) We also have uncovered strong evidence that just four of the 20 common amino acids, Glycine (single letter code-G), Alanine (A), Arginine (R) and Proline (P) define and maintain protein shape and may have been the first amino acids to assemble into proteins. Because the single letter codes for these four amino acids spell GARP, we refer to our work as “Evolution According to GARP” with apologies to John Irving.

bonus: Do you believe young people today more naturally inclined to work with technology? What is the learning curve like for young people doing this type of highly technical work?

25 years ago I could tell high school students about our work but I could not see a way for them to do revolutionary science in high school. All of my students have computer skills far greater than mine. I have provided a problem worthy of their skills to which they can apply their remarkable talents. To have 60 brilliant, creative and dedicated people looking at a problem in new and different ways is a great way to go. I encourage the students to achieve their potential and provide an environment that helps them do so. I do not think there are many people in the world who achieve their potential. I think these students will do so. I also provide pizza and wings for lunch during weekly show and tell—this is Buffalo, after all.

The learning curve? Day 1: They never heard of the ribosome and its 50 proteins that are present in every living thing. Day 5: They and their team of three are giving 20 minute power point talks on the ribosomal protein assigned to them and eager to hear the talks of the other 9 teams. They know they are the only people in the world who ever did this. After three hours of non-stop science the students voted on the quality of the presentations and the team with the most votes got to choose the topping on the next week’s pizza.

bonus: So are the cries of science’s demise among students in the United States premature? What will it take to get student really interested in science once again?

Einstein didn’t do well in school. Bill Gates dropped out. Unfortunately most school curriculum is about the past, change is slow, teacher knows best. Students who think differently are often sidelined. Rarely are students asked for their opinion. Students in our program who read recent publications that didn’t agree with their textbooks were penalized on tests for knowing more than their teachers. One of my most remarkable high school student dropped out of college in frustration and two years later was running a computer based business with six employees here in Buffalo. The questionnaire I adopted from the City Honors Program is self selected for excellence. I have never turned away a student who completed the application and I have never been disappointed. Last summer we received requests for 50 applications. Fortunately only 25 were returned. If I get 50 completed applications this year I will have to run two one-month schools. There is no tuition or fees.

bonus: Should the grad students of the world be concerned your program might be making their labor obsolete! Only kidding... Where would you like to see the program go in the future?

Graduate and undergraduate college students have been a part of the program as mentors, programmers and students.

I have had five City Honors students in my lab every Friday for the last four years. I would like to see City honors double the number of annual placements. I have a new student every Monday from Niagara Catholic High. Niagara Catholic holds classes Tuesday through Friday allowing students the independence to explore potential carriers on Mondays. I would like to have five or more Niagara Catholic students on Mondays. I would like to see more school in the Buffalo area adopt programs like these. I would like to explore exporting the program from HWI to a local school one day a week, to try distance learning to my high school in Illinois, and see the program taken as a model for schools across the country. I would like to have a documentary about these students and their program produced.

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