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A Conversation with Dr. Terrance Kummer: Celebrating 20 Years of Beckman Scholars

Then: 1998 Beckman Scholars Program Award Recipient, University of Minnesota
Now: Assistant Professor of Neurology – Division of Neurocritical Care, Washington University in St. Louis

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AMBF: Prior to college, were you curious about a career in science?

TK: I have wanted a career in science since I was a child.  In the earliest days, I wanted to be an astronomer. The universe fascinated me; it seemed the greatest unknown imaginable. In college I was drawn to the inner universe of the mind, and chose to pursue a career in neuroscience. A crucial mentor in my scientific development, Dr. Gary Gray, shaped my first forays into biological research, leading me to ask first about the molecular complexity biological systems.

AMBF: What exposure did you have to knowing what research in a laboratory would be like?

TK: I had zero exposure.  No one in my sphere of influence up to that point was a scientist. Although it was a complete mystery to me, I knew I needed to break into that unknown world and find out what it would be like to be the first to learn something, then share it with the world.

AMBF: When you heard about the Beckman Scholar opportunity, what inspired you to apply?

TK: My primary motivations were to enhance the work I was doing, access a wider platform to see what others like me were doing and present my work, help fund my education, and to make my mentor proud. I thought that the work we were doing involving chemical technique development was well-aligned with the goals of the Beckman Company and Foundation.

AMBF: What was your research focused on? What were the results?

TK: My research under the Beckman Scholars Program involved the refinement of techniques useful in the analysis of complex carbohydrates. Specifically, we were searching for better ways to sequence complex glycans, or biological carbohydrate polymers, using an approach called ‘reductive cleavage’. We were able to demonstrate improved efficiency of the reductive cleavage method through the combination of previously sequential chemical reactions, leading to a simplified procedure and reduced production of side products. This ultimately increased the accuracy of the analysis.

AMBF: What was the most memorable part about working with your mentor or working in the laboratory?

TK: What I remember most was the people in the lab.  Of course, my interactions with my mentor were frequent and memorable, and influenced my direction in science heavily, but I remember most fondly the graduate students and post-docs working in the lab; the daily trials, their stories, the fun we had laughing about a social event, or yet another breakdown of the gas chromatograph. Spending time with them and seeing how they dealt with the daily successes and set-backs of a career in science convinced me I could do it.

AMBF: How did the experience change your thinking about science and conducting research?

TK: First and maybe most importantly, it taught me that science is not a race.  Early on I was frequently dismayed how long it took to complete a series of experiments and reach a conclusion. I learned it is better to get to the finish line and be able to say something concrete, then reach it first with a dozen caveats. Second, it taught me about the fabulous complexity of biological systems, and about the challenge of sifting this complexity to find order. That understanding influenced my choice to study the brain, taught me to view superficially simple solutions to biological problems with suspicion, and to avoid seeking to reduce a complex process to a small cadre of interacting molecules.

AMBF: Where did you go after graduation and where are you now?

TK: After graduation, I migrated down the Mississippi river to St. Louis, where I received my M.D., and Ph.D. degrees from Washington University.  After graduation from WashU, I moved to the east coast where I completed neurology residency training and fellowship at Harvard.  I then returned to WashU, this time as an attending in the Department of Neurology where I spend 80% of my time conducting research trying to understand the brain, and 20% seeing patients with the disorders under investigation in the lab.

AMBF: What effect did the Beckman Scholar experience have on your career?

TK: The Beckman Scholar experience connected me with many more investigators like myself than I would have met on my own, several of which I continued to correspond with after graduation. It helped train me to speak in front of a diverse audience, present my ideas in an interview setting, and taught me several of the important lessons embodied in Dr. Beckman’s career. The honor of receiving a Beckman Scholarship, moreover, opened many doors to additional training and accomplishment.

AMBF: Do you have any advice for undergraduates considering a research career?

TK: Do it!  Or at least, figure out if it’s right for you by having an undergraduate research experience.  It’s impossible to know what a life in science really is like until you’ve knocked your head against the wall a few times trying to solve a problem no one’s yet solved.  Succeed once, and fail more than once, then look back and decide if a career in research is for you.

AMBF: Did you meet Dr. Beckman in person, and if so, what was most memorable about meeting him?

TK: I met him briefly at a dinner connected to the annual gathering in California. Although it was a long time ago and brief, I recall most his smile. It seemed that the Beckman Scholars program had a lot of personal meaning for him, which he conveyed through his wide grin. When I saw the presentation of this life, and learned about some of his prescriptions for success—most importantly ‘excellence in everything’—I began to feel one of his most exceptional attributes was his ability to muster an infectious, enthusiastic approach to all his endeavors.

AMBF: Any final thoughts?

TK: Thank you for the opportunity! It’s made a tremendous difference in my life. I hope this helps you in some small way to keep making that difference for other undergraduates, and I hope Washington University is on your list of Beckman Scholarship institutions soon!