Research is Hardly Work for Joseph Chalovich
By Doug Boyd
One might think a successful university professor in his early 50s might be looking ahead not to further discovery but to early retirement. Not Dr. Joseph Chalovich.“That won’t happen,” the professor of biochemistry and molecular biology said recently. “This is too much fun.” Then, as a colleague walked by and smirked, Chalovich added with a smile, “On most days.”
Fun for Chalovich, a professor of biochemistry and molecular biology at ECU’s Brody School of Medicine, is discovery and overcoming setbacks and frustration that sometimes accompany research before answers become clear. And “fun” is a word he uses a lot when talking about his work.
“When you’re the first person in the world to know how something works, even if it’s a little thing, it’s a fun experience,” he said.
Chalovich is one of two recipients of this year’s lifetime ECU Achievement for Excellence in Research/Creative Activity Awards. Having grown up in Pittsburgh during the 1950s and '60s, Chalovich recalled the space race between the United States and the Soviet Union and the era’s general fascination with science with getting him interested in research. Like many boys, he took things apart to see how they worked. After high school, Chalovich earned a bachelor’s degree in biochemistry from Pennsylvania State University and a master’s degree in biochemistry and nutrition from Virginia Polytechnic Institute. He completed his doctorate in biochemistry at the University of Illinois Medical Center in Chicago. He was a staff fellow at the National Institutes of Health from 1979 to 1984. He came to ECU in 1984 and was promoted to professor in 1992.
Wanting to help people with muscular disease, Chalovich studied muscular dystrophy at the University of Illinois and then later the regulation of skeletal muscle contraction at NIH.
An important part of helping people is the research that goes into understanding disease, Chalovich said. “Oftentimes, you don’t even know what questions to ask when you’re trying to find a cure for a specific disease,” he said. “You have to know how the human body works and cells work so when you have a problem you have a map to figure out the answer. Human beings are much more complicated that we appreciate, and cells are much more complicated than we appreciate.”
Chalovich’s colleagues point out his dedication to unraveling those complications. “He’s just a pure academician in terms of teaching, research and service to the medical school and university,” said Dr. Joseph Cory, professor and chairman of the Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology.
Cory added that Chalovich takes an active role in his research. “He makes an excellent mentor for graduate students and post-docs because he’s right in there with them,” Cory said.
One reason Chalovich is “right in there with them” is because he enjoys watching students solve scientific riddles. “It’s fun to be able to find the answers to a question and to share that with other people. It’s fun to watch the student overcome the frustration.”
Chalovich has more than 80 publications. He was the 2004 recipient of the Helms Research Award from the ECU chapter of Sigma Xi, the scientific research society, and is the current chapter president.
He’s on the editorial board of the Journal of Cell Research and Muscle Motility.
He hasn’t accomplished all that alone, however. Chalovich’s collaborators include Professor Bernhard Brenner, chairman of physiology at the University of Hanover in Germany; Yi-Der Chen, a theoretical physicist retired from the National Institutes of Health; Dr. Mechthild Schroeder, a research assistant professor at ECU who cloned the protein fesselin; and Dr. Boris Gafurov, research assistant professor at ECU.
Another research interest is heart muscle function. Some insights into the causes of sudden cardiac death may result. “We’re trying to find out how some of these point mutations change the regulation of the heart,” he said.