Faculty Spotlight – 7 Questions with Dr. Dan Purich

Background: Dr. Daniel Purich is a professor in the Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology at the College of Medicine. He is one of the professors for the MHP’s cell biology seminar.

What are your academic background and educational interests?

“I went to a small college in Pennsylvania, first as a premed student, but soon in full pursuit of a degree in biology and chemistry. With two sisters there, I truly felt at home.  I was fortunate enough to have entered during its transition from a state teacher’s college into a full-range academic institution. Because I already had a strong background in chemistry, I enjoyed the unwavering attention and mentorship of nine science faculty, not just as my teachers, but through daily interactions that fostered my research interests. In my junior year, having read a brand-new paper on allosteric transitions by Monod, I separated hemoglobin into its alpha and beta subunits. A highlight was a four-day train ride (with ice bucket containing hemoglobin always at hand) to the University of Colorado, where I used a microcalorimeter to measure the heat of hemoglobin tetramerization. As a first-generation college student, I knew nothing about MD/PhD programs, and chose to pursue a PhD to satisfy my growing addiction to research. Torn between two paths, I eventually had that conversation with my parents—the heart-rending revelation that, contrary to their wishes, I would pursue academia over medicine.
I did my graduate work in biochemistry at Iowa State University, working on enzyme kinetics, followed by a one-year stint at the National Institutes of Health to study enzyme regulation. To challenge myself, I took my first position on the chemistry faculty at the University of California Santa Barbara. I wanted to force myself to master chemistry, and that was surely the case. Along the way, I was required to teach general, organic, and physical chemistry in addition to biochemistry. Though a lot of work, it was a period of great intellectual growth.
I came to UF in 1984 as the chair of biochemistry. Since then, I’ve had a fruitful research career, now punctuated by odd experience of watching as many of those whom I hired prepare to retire. I still enjoy every minute of my professorship and see no end in sight.  In retrospect, I’ve never had a single regret about not pursuing medicine, because as a postdoc at NIH and as a professor at UF, I enjoyed being close to medicine.”

Why were you interested in chemistry?

“I’ve always loved chemistry. I was grade-school troublemaker, and the principal put the Encyclopedia Britannica in the back of the classroom to occupy my time. I was soon reading more chemistry than anything else, because it made sense to me. Years later, I realized it was right for me, because chemistry was the only subject that kept me from looking at the clock. Of course, chemistry can have its down-sides. As an undergrad, if I were to say I was a chemistry student meant, it would confirm that I was a nerd (It’s true, I am). So, I soon learned to say that I was studying sociology. Later, if the date went well, I’d confess by saying that I’m an electron sociologist. After all, chemistry is mainly about the social behavior of electrons.”

What do you like about the MHP?

“I’ve had a long history with the Medical Honors Program, first as Biochem chair 35 years ago, when I helped to find the right people to teach in our MDU course, and, since 2010, as a seminar leader. I enjoy helping students organize the thoughts, as they prepare to present complex ideas. I try to be a tour guide, as students reach the milestones needed to deliver outstanding presentations. I like the Medical Honors Program because it’s the way education should be done—with faculty guiding and empowering students rather than only lecturing them. I’ve enjoyed witnessing as each Medical Honors student rises to the occasion. And I learn something new. It’s a terrific privilege.”

If you could redo your career, what would you do differently?

“I find such questions difficult to answer. It doesn’t take a genius to know that, if you’ve loved your work and are reasonably satisfied with what you’ve accomplished, there’s no room for regrets. Who could want more than the joy of training 33 PhD’s in my lab, of having taught far more than 25,000 students at all levels, and of having such great basic science and clinical colleagues.”

What advice would you give to current medical students?

“The most successful students quickly come to realize that their medical education is a contact sport. Going to class is more than the lecture. It’s about the chance to hear things live, to ask questions, and to learn from each other. You can learn so much more when studying with other people than on your own. Group study adds more dimensions to learning. As you seek to explain things to each other, an uneasy moment allows you to know whether you really understand something, even before a single word is spoken. And, when such actions reveal a weakness, growth becomes more likely. Studying together also stimulates aural memory, providing an addition recall aid during an exam or later in life. And studying in groups enforces a discipline that keeps you from falling behind. In short, medical school requires cooperation, as does the practice of medicine.”

What do you believe has been the greatest advancement for medicine in the last 50 years?

“I’d say imaging. Whether it’s MRI at the organ/tissue level, fluorescence imaging at the subcellular level, or flow cytometry with fluorescent antibodies, imaging allows us to see life better. I think in years to come that’ll become very clear that imaging has advanced medicine in countless ways.”

Going into the future, how do you believe medicine/science may change?

“Were my dear friend Professor Ken Berns to read my earlier response, he would surely say, “OK, and what about genetics?” Of course, everyone knows genetics will revolutionize medicine, and it’s important to stress that much of gene therapy began at UF. Ken is one of the pioneers on AAV-mediated gene therapy, having done the essential basic science many years ago. Of course, we mustn’t forget the enabling work of Professor Nick Muzyczka, who is now in the State of Florida’s Science Hall of Fame for making AAV such a powerful tool. And Professor Bill Hauswirth was the first to used AAV to restore sight. Just imagine a blind person going to sleep after surgery to place the virus at just the right place in the eye, then awaking the next morning with sight restored. It’s almost biblical.”