A Shining Icon on a Hill

There it sits, perched majestically above Highway 101 in Novato, presenting its unadorned, angular facade to passing motorists as gleaming testament to the spare aesthetic of its designer, the great modernist architect I. M. Pei.

Inside though, beyond the airiness of its soaring, welcoming foyer, this inspirational form yields to quotidian function and long hallways extend into colorful, cluttered labs where scientists of all stripes perform the multitude of small tasks necessary to answer life’s largest questions.

This is the Buck Institute for Aging Research—or more simply, the Buck, as the scientists call it—a monument to the confluence of art and science. The institute, founded with funds from the substantial trust of Ross philanthropists Leonard and Beryl Buck, turns 10 this year, celebrating a decade begun with a noble building and an ennobling goal—helping us all age better—and punctuated by work on Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and other debilitating illnesses that have earned the Buck solid standing among its institutional peers.

In the coming decade, the Buck will break new ground­—figuratively and literally. Using a $25 million federal grant, it is creating a new discipline, geroscience, that extracts scientists from their intellectual silos and forms collaborative teams bent on common problem-solving. Worm workers, meet the protein mechanics. Another big grant, $20.5 million from the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine, will underwrite a new stem cell research facility once matching funds are found.

Behind these ideas are many people—188 to be precise (half of whom hold Ph.D.s)—who work in or support the Buck’s 15 research labs. The problems they address are immense, but their daily tasks can be quite small—moving fruit flies from vial to vial, peering at nematodes through six-figure microscopes, taking apart cells.

Science might be described as curiosity, rigorously applied. The Buck is a building, yes, and an amazing one at that, but—and sorry, Mr. Pei—the building is just a pretty face. The heart of the Buck is its people. Meet 11 of them in the next eight pages.

Jim “Doc” Kovach — President, Chief Operating Officer

Bio: Parma Heights, Ohio; M.D., J.D. Age 52.

What I do: I oversee administrative activities at the institute.

Career path: I was a middle linebacker with the New Orleans Saints for eight years. During the off-seasons I attended medical school (hence the “Doc” nickname). I was also drawn to law. Since law school, I worked for a law firm representing biotech companies, worked in academic medicine and helped run a biotechnology company.

Biggest challenge:  Finding sufficient financial support for the great science our researchers conduct. Many people still think the institute is financed by the Buck Trust and that we’re a “fat cat” organization. Truth is, the trust provides just 20 percent of our budget—most of our funding comes from hard-earned grants. 

Biggest joy: Being on the ground floor in an area of research that can change the fate of humanity.

Guiding principles: There are three:

1. "If all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail" —Dad, supporting the principle of developing multiple approaches to complex issues;
2. "Success is peace of mind that is a direct result of self-satisfaction in knowing you made the effort to become the best of which you are capable." —John Wooden, supporting the principle of success as a journey;
3. "I don’t want to achieve immortality through my work…I want to achieve it through not dying." —Woody Allen, supporting the principles of humor and longevity.

My vision: That we can help stem the personal, financial and societal costs associated with our current approach to aging in time to help deal with the upcoming “silver tsunami” of aging baby boomers. 

How I see science in society: Science challenges people to become engaged and develop intellectual honesty. At the Buck Institute, our science provides compelling evidence that the greatest power we have in healthy aging lies within our own bodies—through what we do (exercise and nutrition) and the decisions we make.

Gary Scott — Senior Staff Scientist

Bio: New Haven, Conn.; Ph.D. physics. Age 63.

What I do: I work with tumor samples to identify novel markers on the estrogen receptor from breast cancer patients. These markers will distinguish who will respond to hormonal therapy from those who are likely to need a different treatment.

Why I became a scientist: I always enjoyed science and received a Ph.D. in physics before becoming involved in the molecular biology revolution.
My biggest goal as a scientist: Making the big breakthrough.

How I see science in society: The innovations of science provide the technologies needed to lift society to higher standards of health and well-being.

Julie Andersen — Professor

Bio: Moscow, Idaho; B.S. biochemistry, Ph.D. biological chemistry. Age 47.

What I do: I am the head of the Andersen lab. My research involves understanding the specific causes of cell death associated with Parkinson’s disease and developing novel therapies for the disorder.  Parkinson’s affects one in every 100 Americans older than 65, and one in 30 by the age of 85. It is the most prevalent neurological disorder impacting on motor movement, resulting in slowed movement, rigidity and problems with balance. While there are drug and surgical therapies to deal with the symptoms, there is no cure. Parkinson’s appears to involve a combination of genetics and environmental exposures. We are trying to work toward understanding the role of both of these factors.

Why I became a scientist: My mother was a nurse, so by the time I was 11 or 12 I knew I wanted to be involved in this medical process, in making it work more effectively. I considered going to medical school to become a country doc, but realized that I would likely make a
larger impact via basic scientific
research. My first lab job was in high school. From there, I never looked back.
My biggest goal as a scientist: Of course, my “pie in the sky” goal would be to cure all age-related disease. I at least want to make major contributions toward that dream.

How I see science in society: Scientists have not only a responsibility toward furthering cures of age-related disease, but also toward conveying our work to the public (since it is largely funded by taxpayer dollars) and educating the next generation of scientists to ensure that this ongoing research continues.

Subhash Katewa — Staff Research Investigator

Bio: Ahmedabad, India; Ph.D. biochemistry. Age 35.

What I do: Diet plays an important role in healthy aging. I am trying to understand how diet influences mitochondria, which convert food into the energy (ATP) a cell uses. Mitochondria also generate toxic byproducts called ROS. With age, ATP goes down and ROS goes up. Dietary restriction has increased life span and reduced age-related diseases in various species, including mammals.

Why I became a scientist: I remember when I first realized that the movement of my hand or leg is not a simple process of just moving it from here to there. It involves a complex set of events that starts from the brain, involves different neurons, complex signaling, muscle contraction and finally the movement of my hand and leg. This information came from the lifelong work of scientists who showed us how things work. That motivated me to become one.
My biggest goal as a scientist: I work on the fruit fly and we can extend life-span of these flies by about 50 percent. The eventual goal is to see if these similar conditions could improve the length and quality of life in mammals.

How I see science in society: Advancements in sciences have changed our way of life.  Science explained phenomena we thought were unexplainable. We still face many problems whose answer we don’t have. Could you age without complication or disease? Can oceans be used for renewable energy? Could we ask for a fresh pair of kidneys or a heart (grown from our own skin cells) in next 15 days? These things are not possible now, but my grandfather never thought anybody could go to the moon.

Akos Gerencser — Staff Scientist

Bio: Budapest, Hungary; M.D., M.Sc. biomedical engineering, Ph.D. neurosciences. Age 34.

What I do: I focus on mitochondrial physiology and bioenergetics, which means I study those parts of the cell that are in charge of energy production. One theory of aging is that tissues and organs fail due to a decayed capability for energy production. In neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases this decay leads to the demise of neurons in the brain and mental disability. I am working on techniques we can use to detect subtle differences in energy production, which will hopefully lead to identification of age- and disease-related alterations.

Why I became a scientist: I was playing in the sand when I was about 3 and someone asked me what I wanted to be I grew up.  I replied “researcher.” And what are you going to research? For water. Where will you research? In the bucket.  Of course, it was said in Hungarian so it did not alliterate to the Buck originally.

My biggest goal as a scientist: Revealing the unknown. I’m not working on actual cures, so I cannot say it's to cure Alzheimer’s or diabetes. But a relevant goal could be to pinpoint an important detail that could lead to further therapy development.

How I see science in society: Many people are thirsty to learn about the cutting edge of science and technology. Many others reject certain branches of life sciences such as embryonic stem cell research. Scientists have a teaching role to disseminate knowledge and fight myth and fear.

John Miller — Postdoctoral Fellow

Bio: Louisville, Ky.; B.S. biochemistry, Ph.D. genetics. Age 34.

What I do: I am looking for therapeutic targets for Huntington’s disease. The disease is caused by a toxic protein, huntingtin, that causes certain brain cells to die. The huntingtin protein kills cells by causing other proteins to have harmful activities. We inhibit those other proteins and see if we can prevent the cells from dying.

Why I became a scientist: When I was very young I liked mixing liquids from my parents' medicine cabinet in the bathroom sink. This likely contributed to my receiving a chemistry set for Christmas, and in later years a microscope and telescope. I’ve always been interested in trying to figure out how things work.
My biggest goal as a scientist: That my work will contribute to curing as many diseases as possible, starting with Huntington’s disease.

How I see science in society: Science is critical both in helping us understand our world and in our coexisting with it. Specific to what we do here at the Buck Institute, science will help us learn how to understand and hopefully prevent the detrimental effects and diseases that affect many of us as we age.

Art Orjalo — Postdoctoral Fellow

Bio: Los Angeles; Ph.D. biology. Age 32.

What I do: My daily work revolves around the idea of stopping cancer cell development through cellular senescence, which causes cells to stop dividing.

Why I became a scientist: I’ve always been fascinated by puzzles. Biology to me is a giant puzzle. I enjoy finding a missing piece and adding to the big picture. Getting my Ph.D. in biology was also a compromise with my parents, who groomed me for a career in medicine. They still have a “Dr.” in the family, although not quite one they envisioned.
My biggest goal as a scientist: I want my work to make a difference in a person’s life.  It is important to understand why society is preoccupied with staying young. Is it just to maintain smooth skin or to live to 100? It is becoming more and more apparent to me, especially here in Marin County, that it’s not for vanity’s sake. People want to spend more time with their families. They want to see their children having children. They want to play ball or jump in a pool without the trepidation that accompanies aging. I strive not to be the architect of the fountain of youth; I endeavor to erase the fear of getting old.

How I see science in society: Science is what allows someone who is HIV-positive to participate in the Olympics. It allows a businessman to take two puffs from an inhaler and breathe comfortably as he makes a presentation. It allows a 12-year-old to have chemotherapy one day and swing from the monkey bars the next. Science is a way for us to enjoy life to its fullest.

Victoria Lunyak — Associate Professor

Bio: St. Petersburg, Russia; B.S., M.Sc. biophysics, Ph.D. molecular biology. Age 42.

What I do: My specialty is epigenetics, the study of any inheritable influence on gene activity that does not involve a change in the actual DNA sequence. My work focuses on mapping epigenetic blueprints for healthy cells and diseased cells. The hope is that such blueprints will allow doctors to target drugs so they alter only that section of the epigenetic program that is causing a problem. It will be a big job. Different types of cells—skin, eyes, teeth, hair—have unique epigenetic blueprints. I work with stem cells due to their unique ability to transform into many different cell types in the body. My initial project could take five years.

Why I became a scientist: My father was a physicist and pushed me to become a scientist.  Otherwise, I would have become a ballerina. That is what my mother wanted.
My biggest goal as a scientist: I love puzzles and I’m very curious. I would love to solve the puzzle of how epigenetics influences the aging process.

How I see science in society: Science plays a huge role in practically every aspect of society—the environment, food, clothing, business (everything from the explosion of biotechnology companies to insurance companies that use science when participating in health care).

Patricia Renaut Spilman  — Senior Research Associate

Bio: Fresno, Calif.; B.S. physiology, M.S. physiology and cell biology. Age 49.

What I do: Our objective is to find an effective treatment or prevention of Alzheimer’s disease by understanding the biology of neuronal cell death. We study specific proteins that help neurons survive and function well. Neurons are the cells that allow us to hear, see, move, feel, remember and solve problems. Our focus is on identifying proteins or compounds that can be used to either prevent or treat Alzheimer’s. My expertise is in brain anatomy and physiology, as well as the function of individual cell types, particularly neurons.

Why I became a scientist: I was always fascinated by nature and biology, and the function of the brain in particular. I did well in math and science and found it endlessly interesting. I had a seminal moment when I met a friend’s grandmother whose husband, his grandfather, was suffering from Alzheimer’s. It was devastating to the family. She said, “The man I love is gone, but he is sitting beside me.” I knew I wanted to help.
My biggest goal as a scientist: To find a cure, or at least an effective treatment, for Alzheimer’s.

How I see science in society: Science allows our individual and communal intellect to grow and appreciate nature for its reality. In the best case, it should lead modern societies to greater compassion and respect for individuals and the greater world. It is an international discipline—there are people from all over the world working at the Buck Institute. For that reason, the study of science should be a shared endeavor that unites different cultures of the world.

Julie Mangada Lambert — Postdoctoral Fellow

Bio: Petaluma; B.S. microbiology, Ph.D. molecular medicine. Age 37.

What I do: I focus on potential therapeutic applications of human embryonic stem cells for age-related diseases of the nervous system. There are no current cures for these devastating disorders. A promising approach to the treatment is cell therapy, or transplantation of nerve cells into the brain or spinal cord to replace lost cells and restore function. I am developing an MRI-based test that will allow us to assess the progress of transplanted embryonic stem cell-derived neurons in a Parkinson’s disease model.

Why I became a scientist: My mother was diagnosed with systemic scleroderma in 1987. At support group meetings, guest scientists seemed to speak in a foreign language I never really understood until I became a pre-veterinary major. In 1996, I read about the first stem cell transplant for a scleroderma patient. I knew then that I wanted to be a scientist and contribute to this field. After seven years studying transplantation and auto-immunity for my Ph.D., I switched disciplines and found a postdoctoral fellowship to allow me to study stem cells. My mother is still my inspiration!
My biggest goal as a scientist: To present my work in a way that is accessible to everybody. I want people to understand the breadth and scope of the research being done here. Science is not scary and intimidating.

How I see science in society: Science permeates all aspects of our culture, whether it polarizes theological beliefs as stem cells have, promises to cure devastating diseases or prompts us to ask pertinent questions about the future of our environment. Science is the golden thread that weaves together all these diverse fabrics of our society.

Silvestre Alavez — Staff Research Investigator

Bio: Tehuacan, Mexico; Ph.D. biochemistry. Age 40.

What I do: I am working on several projects. One involves exploring the interplay between stress response and aging. I am also interested in how the over-expression of chaperones (proteins) could have a role in the onset and development of several diseases. I also have a particular interest in finding compounds that increase life span. In these efforts, I work with a simple and primitive organism, a microscopic soil worm, the nematode Caenorhaditis elegans, which during the last 10 years has become one of the most important animal models used to study aging.

Why I became a scientist: I am a night person, curious and interested in love, truth, freedom and self-command. What else could I be but a scientist?
My biggest goal as a scientist: To start a strong program directed at exploring the mechanisms underlying aging in my country and help to build strong collaborative networks, nationally and internationally. I hope someday to contribute to finding a strategy to help people to age healthier and gracefully.

How I see science in society: Science is an intellectual activity that implies creativity and progress. Most scientific knowledge is generated in public institutions with the use of public funding. I consider that scientists have a responsibility to clearly and intelligently explain their work and the methods inherent to scientific research, as well as to stimulate a general scientific culture at all levels of education.