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Driven to serve

September 23, 2013


Brian Herman.

Brian Herman brings a wealth of experience to his roles as vice president for research and key player in the University of Minnesota's strategic planning process.

The U's VP for Research has a long history walking the walk

The top floor of Johnston Hall is a long way from the family bakery in Bristol, Connecticut, where Brian Herman learned some of life's biggest lessons.

"My father clearly demonstrated how hard work led to success," says Herman. "That was one of the key messages I was imbued with at an early age.

"He also gave fresh baked goods to people in need. He believed that everyone should be treated equally."

The bakery and his father's example came bubbling up as Herman, the University of Minnesota's vice president for research, talked of his drive to expand the borders of knowledge and help others to do so. It stems from a love of science that began in high school, although he originally had other plans. 

"I intended to go to medical school and picked Adelphi [University] because they had a good pre-med program," Herman says.

Catch the conversation

Listen to Brian Herman's Campus Conversation about the strategic planning process, from noon to 1 p.m. September 30, in the Mississippi Room of Coffman Union. See details to hear him live or streaming.

But things changed during his last two years, as he researched the question of why a fetus, being a foreign body, isn't rejected by the mother's immune system. The answer promised to have wide-ranging effects on, for example, understanding mechanisms of immune tolerance.

"Based on this experience, I decided to become a scientist because I thought I could do more service to society if I discovered something new and important," Herman explains. 

Cells spill their secrets

With his father ill, Herman worked in the bakery for the first few years of graduate school at the University of Connecticut Health Science Center. At UConn he helped develop new techniques for using optical microscopes to study the myriad processes that go on inside living cells. One was the task that some cells—such as skeletal muscle—face when they must fuse together in order to function.

He discovered an orderly process of membrane destabilization, without which fusion cannot occur. This insight had ramifications reaching far beyond muscles.

"This is how viruses fuse with cells," he says. 

As a postdoc at Harvard, Herman, along with his colleagues, became the first to describe the regulation of the pathway by which substances taken up from outside a cell move within it. 

"This pathway is how cells, for example, take up cholesterol and how it's metabolized," Herman explains. "Through this pathway, cholesterol gets into liver cells, the level of cholesterol is sensed, and the cells are instructed to make more or less cholesterol."

Death knell for a cell

Later, Herman studied how cells die. Over 30 years split between UNC Chapel Hill and the University of Texas, he studied an unavoidable consequence of normal respiration: the generation of dangerous forms of oxygen. Most are destroyed, but the survivors cause slow, steady cell damage called oxidative stress.

"Oxidative stress is thought to build up over our lives," says Herman. "The body can remove a damaged cell through an orderly process called apoptosis, or the cell can die in an explosive, uncontrolled fashion and cause local havoc, such as what occurs in a stroke or heart attack."

Herman and his colleagues applied their knowledge to three medical needs:

• They developed a solution in which to store organs for transplantation that inhibited the cellular pathway that causes damage.

• During a heart attack, some heart muscle dies, while neighboring muscle—the "stunned myocardium"—is left alive but vulnerable. They developed procedures to recover this tissue and lessen the damage from heart attacks.

• Most recently, their studies of a specific enzyme have clarified pathways responsible for osteoporosis and the development of chronic degenerative neurological diseases.

Absolutely fabulous

At Chapel Hill, Herman found kindred spirits in legendary men's basketball coach Dean Smith and the UNC chancellor, Bill Friday.

"I got to know Coach Smith and respected his ethics and the way he interacted with people," says Herman. "Friday was also very ethical and socially conscious, and wanted the less fortunate to be taken care of. They both served in some sense as mentors in what drives me as I frame what I want to accomplish in my personal and professional life."

And that's just the tip of an iceberg of experience Herman brings to bear as head of the new strategic planning effort to advance the U's research mission. Also, U President Eric Kaler wants the undertaking to build a research enterprise that's less risk-averse, and who better to spearhead it than a veteran of sky diving, hang gliding, and whitewater rafting?

As the planning gets under way, Herman looks forward to a collective effort to enhance research at the U.

"I think the University has to think more about teams of not just scientists, but engineers, social scientists, and humanists, to solve problems like climate change and wealth disparity, where a few have most and too many have very little," he says. And he's looking forward to the challenge.

"My goal is to help faculty and other researchers achieve success with their areas," he says. "I feel lucky every day because I get to work with fabulous and wonderful people."

Contact the writer at morri029@umn.edu

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