Ken Stuart, the Working Class Kid Who Built a Global Health Hotspot at Seattle Biomed
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in the lab as a master’s student at Wesleyan University in Middletown, CT and then at the University of Iowa, where he got his Ph.D. Seeing the components of the cell under a microscope, after reading about them for years, made something click in his grad school years. He looked at various protozoans, the DNA of mitochrondia that produce energy in cells. He eventually settled on parasites found in Africa, known as trypanosomes, that cause diseases like sleeping sickness and Chagas disease.
This was all happening for Stuart in the mid-to-late 1960s, long before the term “global health” was coined and the whole field became cool. Stuart’s family, particularly his older brothers who studied engineering, gave him some odd looks. Even peers in academia advised him to look in other directions.
“My engineering brothers thought it was crazy, what is this guy doing?” Stuart says.
By the time he was in graduate school in his mid 20s, Stuart was already married and had three kids. He took a couple postdoctoral fellowships, one in London and another in New York, but moved on quickly in search of more gainful employment. By 1972, he found his first faculty job at the University of South Florida. The weather might have been “paradise,” and the opportunity to help build a new university was enticing. But ultimately, “it didn’t turn out as well as advertised,” Stuart says.
As a junior faculty member, Stuart ended up doing a lot of undergraduate teaching, sometimes in lecture halls with 300 people. He didn’t have as much time as he wanted to focus on research. And even though he had a lab with graduate students, he didn’t like the attitude he saw in the older faculty. “The senior faculty, guys who were about 10 years older than me, I didn’t see any ambition or intent to try to accomplish much,” Stuart says. “They were marking time. It wasn’t for me. I wanted to accomplish more.”
So Stuart started thinking about something different. He had secured a two-year, $35,000 grant from the National Institutes of Health to do research at USF. He knew about Seattle’s growing cluster of biomedical research at the University of Washington, and thought about taking his work there. But Stuart, in a hurry to get started, didn’t want to go through the formal faculty recruitment process. He got to talking with Ruth Shearer, a young biologist at the UW. He flew out to Seattle to meet Shearer, and scope out a building near her house in Issaquah that could provide some modest lab space.
It was 1976, about three and half years after Stuart had gotten his first faculty job. Peers tried to talk him out of it. Nobody was starting independent research centers from scratch in those days, especially without any surefire base of funding.
USF didn’t try to dissuade him from leaving. And Stuart says he didn’t look back.
“That was it,” Stuart says. “We looked at it, and decided.” The family was moving to Seattle.
What happened next was the beginning of a true bootstrap operation. Stuart recalls hammering together lab benches by hand, buying a cheap typewriter at a surplus store to pound out federal grant applications, and sneaking in some use of the copy machine at the UW’s biochemistry department. He went to Washington Mutual, waved a $35,000 grant award at a loan officer, and was able … Next Page »