By Caroline Nickerson
Freshman, History major
Dr. Steve Ghivizzani, a research professor at the University of Florida, represents the American Dream. From being the first college student in his family to teaching at Harvard, he now runs his own lab at the University of Florida. Apart from the impressiveness of his research regarding development of gene-based treatments for musculoskeletal disorders, and his status as a national leader in treatments for osteosarcoma (a type of bone cancer), as well as in dwarfism-related and arthritic research, Dr. Ghivizzani himself is an inspiration. Dr. Ghivizzani is a huge proponent of individuals aggressively pursuing their interests and succeeding in their chosen fields. Below is a transcript of our discussion about his research, his journey to the University of Florida, and his advice to college students.
Prism: What motivated you to pursue your variety of research as opposed to other research topics?
Dr. Steve Ghivizzani: I always – I didn’t like to study, but things about the way that genes work and genetic things made sense to me. It just clicked. I was also sort of fascinated by the idea of being a genetic engineer. The fact that you could change things by altering the way their DNA worked, so it gave you a lot power, was a real fascinating concept to me. Being a genetic engineer meant being able to both understand genes and physically manipulate them. This is why I got my PhD and I went to school in that specific direction—I wanted to understand genetic things and how to manipulate things. School allowed me to understand the basics from a book standpoint.
However, as a graduate student, very little involves book work. It’s hands on; it’s learning how to physically do the things you want to do. It’s very practical. It’s simply an art form in that it takes a level of skill that requires practice and understanding so that you can get things to work. It takes a level of precision. Experiments that take months at the beginning of grad school will, at the end of grad school, take you a day.
I knew I wanted to do things disease-related rather than mitochondria. Gene therapy was gaining notoriety at the time. I always wanted to be a genetic engineer and gene therapy seemed like the perfect way to go. I was looking for a position, or a post-doctrinal fellowship, and looked for a new direction. The musculoskeletal thing was fortuitous in that somebody recommended me to a lab (a professor, kind of a mentor to me). He said I should go do an arthritis thing in Pittsburg. Arthritis was never my passion; it was gene therapy. However, arthritis gave me a way to learn gene therapy. And there was an opening. Sometimes your career directions are a mixture of your wants and your opportunities. That’s a lot about research in general. It’s a mixture of interest and available opportunities. There is a little bit of fortuitousness that goes into it because you got to have a job.
The arthritis thing was a way to apply the tools I learned with mitochondria. It seems hard to appreciate, but if I was doing gene therapy for cancer, [it] would be the same. It’s learning what you want to fix about a condition, and learning how to put genes in the cells, and then making these things work. It’s the same thing, but a little different. The arthritis thing gave me a chance to learn how to do that. The idea was that if I learned how to do gene therapy in that, I could apply the tools to almost any problem. I could then have multiple specialty areas. In order to apply gene therapy to any problem, you have to understand its biology. Tissues are very complicated, because bones, cartilage, and etc. are involved. It’s an incredibly complicated environment. In order to treat a disease, you have to understand it first. You have to understand the [basic] biology of the issue, as well as the disease, and then you can formulate a gene-based approach in which to treat it. Along the way, you’re learning about the basic biology of musculoskeletal tissues and the disease processes that are associated with those tissues. These same tissues have things happening to them that happen in other diseases. So joints have cartilage tissue.
Actually, let me switch direction. Once we started to get the idea of a gene therapy for arthritis, we understood that it is hard to get drugs into joint tissues. Arthritis is a lifetime disease. The idea is that the body naturally makes things that stop these processes. You’re not making enough of these things in arthritic areas. So we engineered cells in those areas to make proteins to stop these diseases. We engineered a strategy to make that work. It was a drug delivery system. So, from there, we thought of other local production problems. Bone healing was one of those things. So we activated cells in bones, and then applied this idea to other tissues which are kind of related to that any way.
There are boney tissues in the knee as well as in the bone. We extended the idea. We were forced to learn the biology of those tissues, both natural and disease biology, and how they change as well as how they repair. We began to understand a lot about musculoskeletal disease and tissues in general. I started a new department at Florida. A new guy was there who did bone cancer. About half the kids who get it die from it. He wanted to understand it and treat it. He didn’t have molecular biology skills; he didn’t know how to research; he just knew disease. I was really inspired by his motivation to do this. Medical doctors make a lot of money, but this man, Parker Gibbs, was willing to take a large salary cut because he wanted to try and work on this disease. He was so genuine in his motivation. We were in the same department, so I wanted to help. I didn’t know what I could do. I know a little about bone biology, genes, and gene therapies. So we put our heads together and worked with his knowledge of the disease, my training in molecular biology, and my research knowledge. I’ve learned a lot more about cancer, and he’s learned a lot about molecular biology. It’s been an exciting project. We know more about osteosarcoma’s cause and fundamental nature. In a short time, we’ve learned more than what others have learned in decades. In other words, we’ve eclipsed in a very short time. Dwarfism is another project. Basically, I understood what caused them to be dwarves and realized I knew how to fix that. The idea came from watching television. I thought that there was something to fix, so I started reading and researching. I’m still working on it now!
Prism: Why did you choose to come to UF?
SG: That’s easy! I went to UCF, got my Bachelor’s there, but at the time, there wasn’t a PHD program there, so I just came up to UF after being out of school for a while. I went through different departments and just applied. A lot of what got me involved was just talking to people. I got a sense of what the people were about, and my desire to come here came from that. At the time, no one in my family had ever really gone away. I’m the first in my family to graduate from college, so I sort of had a naïve approach to applying to college.
Prism: Many UF students dream of having a career like yours. How can they get there?
SG: That’s easy. The first thing I would suggest is to think about where your interests lie and what you are really interested in. There’s research everywhere as a scientist: ecological research, basic biology, etc. Do what you’re good at. Whatever you find innately interesting. It has to be genuine because you’re going to being spending the rest of your career doing this; it better be interesting. It’s too hard, too frustrating to do something you don’t care about. First, identify an area of interest early in your undergraduate career. Then go online and research that topic at UF. Find some researchers that work in that general area and see if you can volunteer in a laboratory. Ask them if they have some room for an undergraduate student! It’s easier to volunteer because they may not have the resources to pay for assistance. The lab environment will help you understand if that area is for you. You’ll either say, “Wow, this is awesome,” or “Wow, this is terrible.” See if you can find a researcher, volunteer, and then be conscientious with your involvement. If you say you’re going to volunteer, you better be there when you say you are going to be. They’re going to count on you. Don’t observe; get some research experience. Go sit and talk to professors. They can be good sources of advice. Get out there! Take control of your career. If you don’t, you’ll graduate and compete against the kids who have been motivated from the beginning. They were ready to be a graduate students as freshmen in college! Honestly, just really, seriously think about your career directions. This can be for all fields; research is just one. Get out there and find out if that’s what you really want to do. Learn early and be proactive about your career direction because you have to take charge of your career. If you do this, you can guide it, as well as pick and choose among your opportunities rather than being left with what’s available. Get experience.
Prism: If you could give one piece of advice to all undergraduates, what would that advice be?
SG: I would recommend going to class every day. Get to know your teachers. They’re a good resource [for] advice. And make good grades. Do your best. One of the things I regret the most is that I let myself down. I could have done much better as an undergraduate than I did. Because of that, I had very bad grades. That really ended up being a problem because when you go to apply for things, all they have is your record. It can be very selective, and all they have to go by is what you’ve done so far. The thing that represents you is your grades. You want your record to be illustrative of your work ethic, maturity, and ability. Take it upon yourself to do well. Sometimes you just have to grow into that maturity. Going into college after high school isn’t always the best. I took time off before grad school. And then when I went to grad school, I did it because I wanted to, not because everyone else wanted me to. I immersed myself in it and was grateful for the opportunity. My advice is to do your best in school. Now, I don’t do things halfway. And you never know how good you can be until you know what your best is. You may have it in your head that you have a certain amount of ability, but you never know… until you prove it to yourself. My greatest advice to undergraduates: Let your grades be reflective of your abilities.