Dan and Aggie's Story Featured in ISACB Newsletter
Posted Jun, 2013

Labor of Love

"Close to midnight, snow flurries dance around in the empty streets. We finish our enzyme assay in the lab and head out towards the campus dorms about 2 miles away. We were young and happy and slowly falling in love. Aggie and I met in the '80s, in college while pursuing biochemistry at the University of Bucharest." (Dan) By that time, biochemistry was a new and exciting field in the biology department, and only 25 students per year were admitted. We were both attracted to biochemistry because it showed promise to open numerous windows into the world of biology and medicine. As our college did not have enough labs and professors for all the chemistry and physics courses we had in our curriculum, we had to go to other colleges and institutes for classes and labs, some of them far from our own college. All this traveling along Bucharest streets and then the summer practices at very diverse places, from Research Centers in National Parks in the mountains to Research Institutes and to Hospital labs, made these 25 students to know each other very well and to be very close, and, among them, the two of us became very good friends. "First summer, when most of us went home to different cities, Dan asked me to let him come to my parents' home, as he didn't want to spend the summer alone in Bucharest. I thought what my parents would say, that after leaving home for only one year, I bring someone with me. But my family liked him, and, one year later, we got married." (Aggie)

In college, we were prepared for doing research, and this was the other passion we shared ever since. "My inclination toward research was definitely influenced by my parents, Maya and Nicolae Simionescu, both renowned scientists, and by their friends and entourage at Yale and Columbia University. My wife's fondness for research also came from her parents; their way to see the world and the education they gave her made her want to find out more about the scientific world." (Dan) Still in college, we started to work in the lab, not once walking home after midnight. Working on a liver alkaline phosphatase assay set in motion our desire to know more and our passion for each other. "I also worked with Maya Simionescu in the nearby Institute for Cellular Biology and Pathology on surface properties of the lung alveolo-capillary barrier cells and used electron microscopy, discovering a world of miracles." (Dan)

After college, we embraced a more applied aspect of research at the Cardiovascular Research Center, in Targu Mures, where our boss, a well-known cardiovascular surgeon, Dr. Radu Deac, insufflated in us the passion for heart valves. What is behind the natural valve biology and pathology and why the valve bioprotheses degrade as well? These were questions that fascinated us, and the three of us made a very good team; brainstorming meetings, strenuous work, pure science going directly to the patients' bed; all of these gave us so much happiness, that we didn't feel the oppression of the communist world that made its presence felt outside the lab. Before the internet, with the little book of "Current Contents" received from the institute, we kept a connection with the scientific world and the flame of research burning in our hearts. "We were not allowed to attend conferences outside the country, but my father organized workshops at the Institute, which brought great names from all over the world. He also organized a Romanian Cell Biology Society, with yearly symposiums. They really were amazing, and we attended these, bringing with us our daughter at a very, very young age. No wonder she is now doing a PhD in cell biology/biochemistry".

Definitely enthusiasm is a key element in research, but not enough. Working with a limited amount of supplies was a continuous challenge in those times, and that did not improve in the '90s, when we all hoped for major changes. It was then that we decided to start all over again in the USA. Keeping our passion and interest for heart valves, but missing a connection with a hospital and access to human tissues, we started a Cardiovascular Tissue Engineering Laboratory in Clemson, SC, as tissue engineering was for us biochemists, just like coming home. Besides working in a new lab, we were also "exposed" to a new challenge: before, it used to be only the 2 of us in the lab, but now, very quickly, our lab filled up with students, definitely a new and wonderful experience for us. We learned that it's such a joy to teach young minds and transmit them the knowledge, but, most of all, the passion for research.

We always studied the heart valves, blood vessels, and the heart, but now we realize that it's worth looking "inside the heart" as well. If love is there, then research is good; and for us, love was always there, for each other, for students, for work. We can end this story with our favorite quote by Blaise Pascal: "The heart has its reasons which Reason knows nothing of".

Story published in the ISACB winter circulator. Visit the ISACB homepage for more information.

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