Published August 3, 2011
Butler auditorium sits vacant on an August afternoon, awaiting a fresh wave of students to fill its seats in the upcoming fall semester. When a bevy of new faces finally greet this room and cycle through these seats once again, one surefire constant will remain: Dr. Murray Ettinger will be here to help them.
Forty-one years since his arrival in Buffalo, Dr. Ettinger has engrained himself as a staple of the biochemistry department and the UB medical school at-large. A productive researcher throughout his career at UB, Dr. Ettinger has also become a titan of biomedical education here, assisting in the training of thousands of undergraduate, graduate, and medical students.
Both time and experience have made the reach of Dr. Ettinger’s influence nearly impossible to quantify, for which we should all be grateful. The combination of altruism, passion, and intelligence he possesses is something we can all learn from and should constantly strive towards.
Recently, I had the honor of sitting down with Dr. Ettinger and taking time to dissect some of his experiences and examine his legacy here at UB. I share some of our insightful conversation with you below.
I was very lucky in the places that I went to and the people that I interacted with. My PhD was in a pharmacology department in a medical school at Drexel U in Philadelphia. I wanted to learn about how drugs work. I could see that I was not that interested in classic pharmacology, but was really more interested in chemical mechanism. Fortunately for me there was an organic chemist in that department, and I ended up doing work on enzyme kinetics. I also attended some night lectures about protein structure, a field that was really breaking wide open at the time, and right then I realized that the next thing I was going to study would involve something with proteins. I just thought that most drug receptors were proteins and therefore from there I went on to a protein chemistry lab where I worked on physical methods and enzyme mechanisms.
I really liked physical biochemistry. After two years at Brookhaven, I had a second post-doc at Brandeis in physical biochemistry. A lot of post-docs now are 4-5 years at one institution. It was really good for me to get to go to two different places. At Brandeis I just learned a lot about various kinds of spectroscopic methods.
I came to UB in the fall of 1969 following my post-doc at Brandeis. We never thought we would be here that long, as we had just been moving every two years, but this place has just been great for us.
It wasn’t something I was conscious of, but it’s been a tremendous asset throughout my career. I don’t mean this in a boastful way, but it does make me adventurous. I have a very broad background in all kinds of biology, physical biochemistry, mechanisms of enzymes, physical chemistry and I’m glad that I have a diverse background.
There are not too many people that I have met in science that I would call geniuses. What really separates scientists is how they approach science. What you bring is your background. So if you have a diverse background, whether you want to or not, you are likely to keep an open mind. You are going to do something different than other people because of that diverse background. I did something that most of the rest of the lab was not doing, that the mentor was not necessarily an expert on, but they sensed what I wanted to do and that helped to move that lab in a new direction.
Maybe I am an optimist, but I was never too worried about it. I just felt weak about physical chemistry and math, and I just wanted to continue my studies. I saw it as an opportunity and that was a great thing for me. I love kinetics and thermodynamics. I let interest drive me all the time. I had a confidence in just following my interests.
I came here as a physical biochemist. At that time our graduate program was large, for a different reason than it’s large now. It was Roswell Park and UB departments joined together, comprising some 25-30 graduate students. They were really interested in somebody who could teach physical biochemistry to graduate students in the department and that was the teaching aspect of why I was hired.
There was mostly senior faculty in the department when I first arrived here. After I got here the department was getting better and better, there was a move for a lot of new hires. It was a great place to be. I didn’t set out looking for collaborations, but because I was doing lots of spectral work, I was approached by Dr. Kosman about a newly forming bioinorganic group. It was a concept ahead of its time. There were 2 chemists and 2 biochemists, myself and Dr. Kosman. That group started just by talking to each other and then picked an enzyme to work on, a copper enzyme. Eventually, that whole project got me working on Cu-enzyme mechanisms and everything we tried just kept working. The department has certainly evolved a lot. And now, since Dr. Blumenthal arrived, the department has again gotten even better.
Initially, I hadn’t thought much about teaching, but I did do a lot of teaching with medical students as a graduate student. It occurred to me then that I really enjoyed it and had a knack for it. After I started to teach for one year here at UB, Dr. Brownie asked me if I’d be willing to teach in a medical school course, and I’ve been teaching that every year since 1970. I really love it. I love to keep on learning and thinking of new ways to convey material. I always like to try new things. I worked a lot with Dr. Alan Saltzman to initiate a problem-based/case-based learning curriculum for the medical school.
Another thing about teaching that’s easy to forget - it’s like research or diagnosis. I like to talk to people and try to figure out what’s suboptimal about the way they are studying or learning. I love getting to think on the fly of some analogy or comparison to help a student understand a concept. It’s the satisfaction of seeing that person just get it. I get a lot of satisfaction in trying to help people understand. I love to think and learn about new stuff. I have learned a lot from my experiences in listening to students.
There is a lot of freedom in what I get to do here. Nobody tells me how to do anything, they just tell me what general topics to cover and the responsibility is up to me. I’ve ended up doing all sorts of things that I didn’t necessarily seek – many service-wise. I was president of the faculty council. I was also acting chairman of the department twice, one 4 year stint and one 1 year stint.
I found it difficult to be the chairman, but mostly I just think it is a riot that I get paid for what I do. I love the teaching, I love the research, and I like some of the administrative work I do.
I knew from being at Brookhaven that I wanted to be in an academic atmosphere. There is a certain kind of liveliness when people are talking to each other and collaborating and part of that is because there are teachers and students. I love the intellectual stimulation that comes from talking and working with graduate students about their work. They are always very passionate. In everything that I’ve done, graduate students have been key players. I am proud to say that I have trained some 19 PhD students in my lab.
To me it is a very thrilling time to be in science. There is so much happening and so much more new understanding. How all of it connects to disease is also interesting to me. I didn’t plan it this way, but I see connections between my research and my teaching and it’s often around disease.
Let your interests drive you. Talk to people. Go to meetings. You get a good idea where your own work stands at meetings, and they can give you a lot of good ideas. You have to be open-minded to be a scientist. Also, you have to be able to take discouragement. Science doesn’t always work. You have to be able to keep your wits about you. I always let interests drive me, but I do keep my goals in mind. Keep your mind on the big picture. I call it going for the jugular. Sometimes it pays to go for that big experiment at the end of a logical progression of experiments before doing all those experiments, just to see how it works out and to make sure what you are working on is worth the time and effort.
By Jason Rizzo, MD/Ph.D. Student
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