Graduate student in human physiology is on the fast track

Everything just seems to happen fast for Chris Banek.

He was a dedicated researcher before he'd finished his undergraduate studies at the University of Minnesota Duluth. At 22, he was the senior graduate student in a human physiology laboratory at the University of Oregon. By 23, he had co-authored 10 peer-reviewed scientific journal articles and a book chapter on sex differences in the developmental programming of adult disease.

Now a doctoral student in human physiology, Banek still has to complete his dissertation work in UO assistant professor Jeff Gilbert's lab — but universities already are recruiting him for postdoctoral programs. At this pace, he could have his first faculty appointment in a medical school before he's 30.

Banek credits his rapid ascent to an early passion for science, a competitive drive galvanized by sports and an opportunity to be a part of Gilbert's cutting-edge research.

"I've always loved science," Banek said. "While working with Dr. Gilbert, he's given me plenty of valuable learning opportunities, such as lab start-up design and grant-writing experience."

Banek studies heart and kidney health and complications in pregnancy.

In 2012 alone, he won the American Physiological Society Water and Electrolyte Homeostasis Pre-Doctoral Research Recognition Award; the Society for Experimental Biology and Medicine Young Investigator Award; and the Council for High Blood Pressure Research New Investigator Travel Award for Trainees. He also has been selected to serve a three-year term as the trainee representative to the American Physiological Society, during which he will represent undergraduate, graduate and post-doctoral trainees and advocate for professional development opportunities for all levels of trainees within the society.

Banek's passion for science surfaced early; he still remembers his first childhood chemistry kit and the "little fires" he started that got him in trouble with his parents. He grew up in Minnesota, so he did what many Minnesotans do — play hockey year-round, distinguishing himself as an athlete.

But Banek had to find a different outlet for that competitive spirit when he went to college, so he channeled his drive into his studies. And when he discovered how satisfying research could be, Banek willingly traded hockey skates and morning workouts for lab coats and cell cultures.

While at UM-D, Banek was introduced to Gilbert, then an assistant professor in the University of Minnesota Medical School.

Banek's focus at the time was biochemistry and biophysics, but working with Gilbert on high blood pressure complications related to pregnancy convinced him that his true love is physiology. Together, the two laid the initial groundwork for a study published recently in Hypertension, a journal of the American Heart Association, in which they found exercise could be beneficial in alleviating hypertension during pregnancy.

"With biochemistry, you're dealing with microscopic and abstract research — you don't see what's going on with the organism itself," Banek said. "With physiology, you can see how changes affect the organism, such as observing blood pressure changes after controlling small changes in specific proteins that effect whole-organism cardiovascular health and control."

After Gilbert joined the UO faculty, Banek followed, entering the graduate program in early 2011 and joining Gilbert's lab the following summer. The timing was perfect: Gilbert was just setting up his lab and he gave Banek considerable latitude in helping to design it.

Banek picked several of the lab's equipment packages and helped with the choices for a fluorescent microscope and the telemetry system used to measure blood pressure in experiments.

"Chris had already developed a strong research background (as an undergraduate)," Gilbert said. "He knows his way around a laboratory, is very self-sufficient and self-motivated, and he takes responsibility for his work. I feel Chris found that setting up the lab was an important learning experience and will help him in the long run with his career."

Now, Banek is using his undergraduate background in cell and molecular biology for more cohesive research in physiology.

It's well documented that exercise lowers high blood pressure, but scientists are still working on why and how it is beneficial in pregnancy. Part of Banek's research focuses on an enzyme called adenosine monophosphate kinase, or AMPK; research has shown that stimulating AMPK can increase the growth of blood vessels, which can, in turn, improve circulation and lower blood pressure.

Banek is trying to isolate AMPK as a critical link by controlling its expression and assessing whether exercise lowers blood pressure without this protein. One promising find: Using aminoimidazole carboxamide ribonucleotide (AICAR), a drug commonly used under the name Acadesine, he was able to stimulate AMPK, thereby restoring blood-vessel growth and health and reducing blood pressure in pregnant rats.

That suggests that drugs such as AICAR might also boost AMPK and lower blood pressure for human hypertensive pregnancies — an exciting possibility, Banek said.

Hypertensive disorders of pregnancy such as preeclampsia are the most common pregnancy complications, accounting for 76,000 maternal and 500,000 infant deaths each year in the United States, conservatively.

"The fact that there is no cure for preeclampsia is quite disconcerting," Banek said. "If we can validate a cheap intervention such as exercise or a pharmacological benefit such as AICAR, it would be very beneficial to mothers and their babies and society as a whole."