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carlos catalano

Carlos Catalano, PhD

As a middle school student in Corona, California, I was fortunate to have Mr. Schultie for my science teacher. When I would ask him a question, he would say, ”I don’t know, but I have often wondered about that myself.” Mr. Schultie had a library in the back of his classroom, and he would suggest that I look for an answer there and let him know what I had found. For the longest time I thought he was ignorant. Finally, I realized that he was teaching me a very important lesson: I could find an answer to any question on my own. It was wonderful to have someone point me in the right direction. Many times throughout my education, I have been fortunate to have someone guide me by pointing the way.I attended California State University, San Bernardino after I finished high school. I wasn’t quite ready for college at that time, so I quit and worked as a buyer at Circle City Hospital for two years. That work experience convinced me that I was still very interested in science, and that an education would provide me with the necessary tools to become a successful scientist. So, I went back to school. This time I went to California State University, Fullerton. My favorite subject was chemistry. I recall a conversation that I had with my professor of organic chemistry where he told me that no one understood how aspirin worked. I was dumbstruck. How could we be so uninformed about such a common, over-the-counter drug? This started my interest in the chemistry of drugs, which continues to this day.
I moved to San Francisco and completed my Bachelor of Science degree in biochemistry at San Francisco State University. I was still very interested in the chemistry of drugs but was seeking financial security in a profession. How could you make a decent living in chemistry? Little did I know of the many interesting and lucrative opportunities that actually existed. Nevertheless, I enrolled in the School of Pharmacy at University of California, San Francisco. At this critical point in my career, I was again fortunate to have someone point the way. Dr. Neal Castagnoli told me that I could study pharmacy and at the same time continue my studies in chemistry. This is exactly what I did. I received a Doctor of Pharmacy (Pharm.D.) degree in 1983 and a Ph.D. in Pharmaceutical Chemistry in 1987 while working for Dr. Paul Ortiz de Montellano. Paul was also a major influence in my life. He continued to feed my curiosity, and more than anything else he nurtured my love for science.
I then moved to Pennsylvania State University for a post-doctoral fellowship. During this time my scientific interests broadened, and I began to study the chemistry of proteins, working with Dr. Steve Benkovic. I examined how a cell makes more DNA, something that must happen for the cell to divide. This was also an exciting time, learning new ideas and different ways to perform experiments. Steve taught me how to approach difficult problems in studying the chemistry of enzymes. These lessons are very important to my everyday life as a scientist today.
Finally, after all the training and hard work, I accepted a faculty position at School of Pharmacy, University of Colorado Health Sciences Center in 1989. Although I no longer practice pharmacy, I teach pharmacy students biochemistry and try to show them how the biochemistry of a cell (and a human) is changed by drugs. Today the pharmacist’s role in society is going through radical changes. In the last century, the pharmacist’s role was mainly to dispense medicine. Now pharmacists are receiving more intensive training, leading to the Doctor of Pharmacy degree. Pharmacists are now expected to take a more active role in helping patients.
My favorite part of my job, however, is conducting research on viruses. These are very tiny infectious particles that enter a cell and ”take it over” to make more viruses. My laboratory is interested in how a virus replicates inside of a cell. We try to understand how the virus puts itself together, making virus pieces from the cell’s pieces. I am still interested in chemistry, the chemistry of life. The lessons that I have learned from my teachers as well as my students and peers have made me even more curious about how life works. If I can have it my way I will continue to be a student for the rest of my life.