Gene study researcher to speak at Rock Hill symposium

April 8, 2013 

When Robert Beaty walked the halls Northwestern High, he admits he wasn’t anything special. His academic performance was spotty. Sometimes there were A’s but more often the grades were average, even less than average.

His sister, Kathy, was the straight-A student, he said.

When he walks the halls at work today, he still maintains that he is nothing special.

But the place where he works is special, John Hopkins University in Baltimore, where some of the nation’s leading medical scientists are trying to unlock the mysteries of human cells, some looking for better ways to fight cancers.

“I can walk down the hall and rub elbows with Nobel Prize winners,” Beaty said. He also can rub elbows working side-by-side, as Beaty is a researcher, splitting his time between the lab and academic work.

He is working on a team headed by Steve Baylin, a 70-year-old “bundle of energy,” who is a professor of oncology and deputy director of the Hopkins’ Cancer Center.

They are working in an area of science called epigenetics – the study of changes in gene expression caused by mechanisms other than changes in the underlying DNA.

They are looking at human cancer cells, taken from surgeries for lung, breasts, the colon and ovaries. The cells are injected into lab mice. The mice are then treated with various drugs.

A breakthrough may allow them to develop drugs that would help other cancer-fighting drugs to do their job better.

On Tuesday, Beaty returns to Rock Hill, speaking at the annual Senior Symposium at Westminster Towers Continuing Care Retirement Community. His talk is titled “Cancer Research: Where are we now?”

He will be joined by Rock Hill physicians Dr. David Nix of Carolina Cancer Specialists, Dr. Kashyap Patel of Carolina Blood and Cancer Center, Janie Smith of the American Cancer Society and Karen Zoph of Hospice and Community care.

While Beaty frequently returns to Rock Hill to visit family and friends, this visit will mark almost 40 years since he helped Northwestern win state titles in cross country and track.

The lessons of a runner, he says, help him in his work today.

As a high school student, Beaty would run 5 to 8 miles before school and then more miles during after-school practices.

His coach, Bob Jennings, taught him that being among the best makes you better.

Beaty also learned how to work alone and as a team – a skill he uses today. He likes working alone in the lab, but understands that medical research today is a collaborative affair with researchers at multiple locations all working on parts of a problem. Often a medical paper today can have many authors where years ago it would have had one or two.

The path Beaty took to Hopkins, however, isn’t as direct as the laps on the track or even a point-to-point cross-country race.

He went to three colleges, including Winthrop, before he settled in at the University of Tennessee, where he earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in botany. His doctorate is from Tulane University in molecular cellular biology. He did post-doctoral work at Duke and finished his schooling at age of 36, about 10 years older than most of his fellow students.

His initial genetic work was in cloning trees – pines, dogwoods and redbuds.

He move to human genetics, a change he says was and wasn’t all that different. The research techniques are often similar, he said.

The constant is the method of inquiry, and that is where Beaty said he probably excels the most.

“I’ve done well because I have a curious intellect. I want to know how things work, why they fail.”

The result, he said, is to do as much as you can and learn as much as you can. That time, he said, is never wasted.

The Symposium is from 8:15 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Tuesday at Westminster Towers in Westminster Hall. The cost is $5 and includes lunch and refreshments. Call 803-328-5231 for registration.

Don Worthington •  803-329-4066 •  dworthington@heraldonline.com

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