Time is always a strange thing and it almost never lets you in on it's passing. Every once and awhile you get the chance to take a look back and be amazed at the distances. In the summer of 2009 I went to Seattle with my girlfriend Michelle and her mother, we were going up because the ladies were to run the Rock & Roll marathon and I was tagging along for the trip.
My good friend BJ Sellhorn was living and working in Seattle for a biotech research lab. I had not seen him in years and was super stoked to hangout and go skating. Catching up with BJ and learning about the crazy path his life had took really gave me perspective on what things can happen in time and that time had been passing.
I design and produce proteins from the HIV virus and test them as potential vaccine candidates
A little talk with George Sellhorn & Mike Rusczyk
Mike: Where do you live, where are you from?
BJ: I live in Seattle with my wife Kimberly. I am originally from Chesterton, Indiana.
Mike:I'm not going act as if I can fathom what it is that you do, can you give me a little background on your area research.
BJ: I am a Postdoctoral Research Scientist in the Viral Vaccine Program at the Seattle Biomedical Research Institute. I am a biochemist. Basically, that means I work with protein. Specifically, I design and produce proteins from the HIV virus and test them as potential vaccine candidates. I am also in charge of Protein Production and Purification for the lab.
I work in a lab that is trying to understand the antibody response in people after they are infected with HIV and then take that information and try to design a protein or set of proteins that can be developed into an HIV vaccine.
Mike: Why this, what drew you to this specific area of study?
BJ: I was always interested in biomedical research when I was in graduate school even though I was studying plant biochemistry in graduate school. When I was finishing my Ph.D and applying for jobs I was really interested in going to Seattle...and there was a position opening here that required all of the technical skills that I acquired in grad school so I applied. I also really wanted to do meaningful work...and there is no question that an HIV vaccine will have a tremendous impact on global health so I figured it would be a fun challenge.
Mike: Do you feel the field of research you are in may in our lifetime yield an HIV vaccine?
BJ: I do think there will be an HIV vaccine in our lifetime...but experts 25 years ago said there would be and HIV vaccine in a couple years. It is a daunting challenge because of all of the ways that the virus has evolved to "hide" from our immune system and the fact that HIV is the type of virus (retrovirus) that integrates itself into our DNA. This is a huge challenge to develop a vaccine gainst but there is a tremendous amount of resources being directed towards this goal with a ton of intelligent people working on it. Only time will tell.
Mike: Is it hard to stay optimistic when dealing with such a complicated problem?
BJ: I would say that it is not difficult to stay optimistic for me but I have only been in the field for three years. There are researchers who have been working on this for 20+ years and aren't much closer to a vaccine then they were when they started. Science is full of failures. You can learn a great deal from experiments that don't turn out the way you would expect. Science is driven forward this way, making you think of new ways to answer a question or overcome some technical problem.
Mike: I'm very curious about where you derive inspiration from?
BJ: This is a complicated question actually. First of all, with anything I do I want to do it well, I am a perfectionist. In terms of my education though, Initially, it came from my dad...He always insisted that I was going to go to college...He worked at US Steel in Gary, Indiana for 33 years and I guess he didn't want me following in his footsteps so he was adamant about my education. So up through my sophomore year in college I was motivated to please my dad. But he was killed in a car accident two weeks before my finals in the spring of 1996 and that shattered a huge inspiration for my education and I struggled for about one year with whether or not I was going to quit school. Then I became interested in chemistry, biology and plants, and it just came from learning itself...
I was so stoked on what I was learning that I loved to go to class, it was fun for me again and I was doing it for all of the right reasons and it just felt good. When I was in high school I was told by more than one teacher that I wouldn't amount to anything and that stuck with me more than any lesson they tried to teach me. They were completely biased against me because I was a "skater punk" and that was their prejudice...the town I am from was (and still is) infested with ignorance...I love the fact that I perused a higher education, attended top-ranked universities and got a Ph.D. I love to prove people wrong! Lately, it is the prospect of having a family and wanting to provide the best possible environment for them.
BJ: I would like to think that there are similarities in the creative process and scientific research. I feel that they both are rooted in observation, documentation, and experimentation; yielding expected and unexpected results.
Mike: Do you consider yourself a creative person?
BJ: Not really.
Mike: With all of the work you have put into your education and energy toward scientific research you must have some times felt that your end goals were impossible to reach. What are some ways you have with coping with potential failures or daunting odds?
BJ: I never felt like they were impossible to reach but at times I have questioned my choices. I have thought several times in grad school and during my postdoc...do I really want to do this?...but I think most people do that. I guess the way I cope with it is I tell myself there is no way I can fail...that doesn't even enter my mind. This is not supposed to be easy and I have never expected it to be. Like I said I love a challenge and nothing motivates me more than being told that I can't do something.
Mike: I know you recently got married I'm interested in how you view love. Do you feel it is mainly a chemical reaction, maybe it comes from being involved with a person day in and out, sort of love by association. Or do you see it as something different and less scientific.
BJ: I definitely don't look at love as scientific...although it certainly can be in terms of matching personalities. Love is the pinnacle of human relationships, it is powerful. To feel loved is the most comforting feeling I have ever felt and I am very lucky to have a wife that excels at expressing her love...it is amazing! I am very lucky to have her!!!