Biophysicist in Profile

Lawrence Prochaska

"It’s not necessary to fear the prospect of failure but to be determined not to fail,” said Jimmy Carter, 39th US President, 2002 winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, and Lawrence Prochaska’s greatest hero. Carter’s committed service to mankind as well as his reaction to losing the bid for reelection stir Prochaska’s admiration. “Although he was soundly defeated,” Prochaska says, “he retooled himself, never gave up, and pursued excellence in other areas.”

Prochaska’s own career path has followed a similar trajectory. The current Professor of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology at Wright State University’s Boonshoft School of Medicine knew in his teens that he wanted to pursue a particular kind of science, but in getting there he found himself with an armful of proverbial lemons—all the better for making a whole lot of lemonade.

Prochaska’s suburban Chicago high school had a 60% dropout rate, but offered honors programs, in which Prochaska was enrolled. Still, he was bored. “I was a B/C student who was not very interested in regimental learning,” he says. “I wanted the freedom to pursue academic interests at my own speed.” Prochaska’s brother, the first member of Prochaska’s immediate family to go to college, brought college textbooks home for his thirteen-year-old brother. Prochaska read them enthusiastically, simulated by the intellectual challenge they presented. Though his parents’ professions were math-heavy—his mother kept books for a steel company while his father, a floor covering salesman, calculated pricing and square footage—by age 19, it was science that piqued Prochaska’s interest, not math. He entered Illinois State University as a biology and chemistry double-major.

It was his biochemistry professor who suggested that Prochaska apply to graduate school. Prochaska discussed this option with one of his brother’s friends, a newly minted biochemistry PhD. “He told me that being a biochemist wasn’t easy, but it was interesting,” Prochaska says. He decided to go for it, landing a spot in the late Elizabeth Gross’ lab at Ohio State University. “She was studying divalent cation regulation of excitation energy between the two photosystems in green plant photosynthesis in chloroplast membranes,” he says. Not only was the research interesting, the lab culture allowed graduate students to come into their own. “Liz was very supportive, interactive, and enthusiastic … and willing to spend time with her students,” Prochaska says. Gross, an active member of the Biophysical Society and the Bioenergetics Subgroup, delivered the perks of a scientific society to her graduate students firsthand, fostering their professional and academic growth by taking them to Biophysical Society Annual Meetings. “I was given an opportunity to give platform talks, which increased my scientific exposure to my colleagues in the field,” Prochaska says, a practice that he now repeats with his own graduate students. “This is a unique, important role that the Biophysical Society plays for young scientists, giving them exposure and an opportunity to speak in front of a large group concerning their science.”

Prochaska then moved to the Department of Biological Sciences at Purdue University to begin his first postdoc. Richard Dilley’s lab was larger than Gross’, which proved to be a valuable experience for Prochaska. “Dick was a more hands-off mentor,” he says. “I learned how to do proton pumping and Dick allowed me to explore my integral membrane protein biochemical/biophysical research interests.”

Prochaska also made friends in the next lab over. The friendship of William Cramer, current Distinguished Professor of Biological Sciences at Purdue, turned out to be lasting. The pair worked in similar research areas and played basketball, a boyhood talent of Prochaska’s. “Larry has the unique combination of a total devotion to biochemistry and bioenergetics, both in the lab and administratively,” says Cramer, “and one of the most accurate 20-foot jump shots in this community.”

After his third year in Dilley’s lab, Prochaska decided it was time to pursue his own research. He applied for a number of academic positions—and got back nothing but rejections. “I remember one day when I received seven letters of rejection for academic positions,” he says. Like Carter, he did not give up; instead, he made a change. “I went to the literature and read different areas of membrane protein biochemistry and biophysics,” he says. Among his reading, Roderick Capaldi’s work on mitochondrial membrane protein bioenergetics at the Institute of Molecular Biology at the University of Oregon stood out. No sooner had Prochaska drafted the letter asking to join the lab than Capaldi’s ad for a postdoc appeared
in Science. Prochaska applied immediately, and was hired through a phone interview. “Rod taught me about membrane proteins and how to work with them and introduced me to cytochrome c oxidase,” says Prochaska. “Rod also allowed me to develop my own ideas, encouraged me, and helped me build confidence in my scientific abilities.” Capaldi helped him attain his position at the Boonshoft School of Medicine, where Prochaska’s current research focuses on structure-function relationshipsin cytochrome  c oxidase and also the role of apoptosis in heart cells in a failing heart model. “We are interested in using our molecular tools such as antibodies, activities, and dye measurements to study more translational mitochondrial research,” he says.

Prochaska is currently Chair of the Society’s Bioenergetics Subgroup, a role he fully embraces, according to colleague Robert Gennis, Professor of Biochemistry, Biophysics, and Chemistry at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. “One of Larry’s most notable traits is his generosity, giving his time and efforts to help others,” he says. “He has been active on behalf of our membership, organizing symposia and lectures, nominating members for awards.” Another colleague, Shelagh Ferguson-Miller, Professor of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology at Michigan State University, agrees. “He has been unstinting in his service to the community and to his university,” she says, noting that Wright State University named Prochaska the Frederick A. White University Distinguished Professor of Service.
As much as his research and community involvement thrill him, training his students is the most rewarding aspect of Prochaska’s work. “To see students who are interested in science evolving from day to day into the business of doing science as a lifestyle and then watching them flourish in their subsequent careers gives me a profound sense of self-satisfaction,” he says. He also teaches them to persevere in their current circumstances—to turn their own proverbial lemons into lemonade. “People who work hard even with limited resources can actually be successful in their careers,” he says, and quotes one of his own mentors: “‘Working hard in science is a prerequisite to success.’” Prochaska would know.

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