You won’t find it on a world map, but Bradford C. Berk’s (MD/PhD ’81) cardiovascular research laboratory is a sought-after destination for promising young scientists from around the globe.
It’s Tuesday afternoon, and Bradford C. Berk, M.D., Ph.D., is heading down a long, sterile corridor, adorned with precise rows of snowy white lab coats and industrial-size shower heads. A metal flag, imprinted with a name and room number, juts out above each door along the hallway. He stops in front of the flag marked “Berk Lab, B207.” This banner won’t be found flying outside the United Nations, but it is an international symbol of sorts.
Over the past 25 years, up-and-coming scientists from 15 countries have found their way to the Berk lab, now located inside the nearly 100,000 square foot Aab Cardiovascular Research Institute (CVRI), about six miles down the Genesee River from URMC. The young researchers’ homelands are dotted across five continents; their cities are as foreign as Wuhan, and as familiar as Detroit. They have ascended from more than 50 universities and spoken a dozen languages.
But these men and women -- about 80 altogether -- are drawn to this place for one reason: to be mentored by Berk.
“It’s word of mouth, so a lot of them seek me,” says Berk, who has also scrutinized poster sessions at international meetings to handpick the most promising scholars. The students he selects are highly motivated. “Science is all about passion. You don’t do science to make money. You do it because you are driven.”
That quality is essential when you enter Berk territory. He is the founder and first director of CVRI, where his cardiovascular research laboratory is one of 14. It is a powerhouse. Berk has been primary or co-primary investigator on $36.9 million worth of grant-funded projects since 1998; in the last five years, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) has awarded $10.4 million in support of research led, at least in part, by Berk. While he has significantly reduced his time in the lab since becoming CEO, he and his team have vastly expanded our understanding of how cells in the vascular wall respond to biomechanical forces such as blood flow and hormones, and how that relates to atherosclerosis, hypertension, and stroke. It’s a large lab, but there is not an inch of room for idlers here.
“He is a very easygoing person if you are a hardworking trainee,” says Gadiparthi N. Rao, Ph.D., a graduate of Gujurat University in the Indian city of Ahmedabad and one of Berk’s first mentees.
That was back in 1989, when Rao was a postdoc. Berk encouraged him to apply for his own funding. Today, Rao holds the highest number of grants awarded to an individual at the University of Tennessee Health Science Center -- including a total of $6 million from NIH for his studies of vascular disease.
“I had never thought of becoming an independent investigator. It was Dr. Berk who inspired me.”
Rao remains very fond of his mentor, whose advice does not always pertain to the renin-angiotensin-aldosterone system, endothelial cells, or oxidative stress. Berk, who took less than one year off as CEO after a life-altering bicycling accident in 2009, doesn’t reserve his indefatigable ambition for the lab. He tackles many other professional and personal commitments with equal zeal, and he pointedly counseled Rao to do the same.
“By nature, I’m a very hardworking person and I was spending most of my time in the lab. But I had three children at home,” Rao remembers. “One time, Dr. Berk asked me not to come in. He told me to take my family on vacation to the Smoky Mountains instead.”
“It was a unique experience,” Pam Lucchesi, Ph.D., says. She arrived in Berk’s lab in 1992, and spent a year learning to translate basic science to the bedside. “His lab was a perfect fit. He could read a clinical EKG while simultaneously discussing the finer details of cell signaling cascades.”
Berk continued to mentor Lucchesi long after she departed. He recommended her as a grant reviewer for the NIH and American Heart Association, and appointed her to the editorial boards of several high impact journals. She continued developing a project based on research started in Rochester.
“He actually held back his own data for publication until my work was funded and published,” Lucchesi says. “That kind of extended mentorship is rare in this field.”
Lucchesi is now director of the Center for Cardiovascular and Pulmonary Research at Nationwide Children’s Hospital in Columbus, Ohio. She’s a principal investigator there, and at the hospital’s Heart Center. She too has become a prolific mentor, influencing the futures of more than 50 students and fellows.
“Whatever they end up doing, I take enormous satisfaction in the success of the people I mentor,” says Berk, who equates success with innovation and significance. “If you are spending your life doing something you’re passionate about, you should be doing something that makes a difference.”
Some of his mentees are accomplished scientists; others are physicians, business leaders, and school teachers. Many of those who pass through Berk’s lab eventually return to their native land, carrying a bit of his knowledge and inspiration with them. Jing Wang, M.D., worked with Berk from 2005 until 2009. The People’s Republic of China recently rewarded her through its 1,000 Talents Program, which honors the nation’s most brilliant ex-pats.
“It’s similar to receiving a MacArthur Fellowship,” Berk explains, noting Wang will receive the equivalent of $500,000 to set up her own lab at Peking Union Medical College, one of China’s most selective medical schools. “It’s a terrific opportunity for her.”
Undoubtedly, Wang’s lab will, in some fundamental way, reflect the many hours she spent in B207. The same is happening in countless other labs, from Rochester to Milan to Osaka. Bradford C. Berk, M.D., PhD., who very much belongs to Rochester, is deeply rooted in scientific discovery around the world.