Cancer Study and Kant Keep Senior, 19, Busy Throughout Final Year By Emil Venere His professors call Ryan Putzer the brightest undergraduate they've ever seen. He started Hopkins as a 16-year-old sophomore, having skipped two years of high school. Now, after winning numerous awards on his way to earning two bachelor's degrees, the 19-year-old senior has added another distinction to his résumé. He led a team of scientists in writing a paper on cancer research that appears in this month's issue of Chemical Research in Toxicology, a journal published by the American Chemical Society. "I feel as if I really tackled something significant in biochemistry," said Putzer, who plans to attend medical school after graduating in May. Of course he's quick to emphasize that he couldn't have accomplished the feat if not for the stewardship and support of his colleagues, who are co-authors of the paper. "I never, never, never could have completed this," he said. "I am thoroughly indebted to my mentors who turned this fledgling project into a reality." Chief among his mentors was Paul Talalay, a respected molecular pharmacologist at the School of Medicine. The research investigates enzymes that protect cells against cancer, focusing specifically on chemicals that induce cells to produce these protective enzymes. Combining two specific chemical inducers, it was found, substantially magnified their potency, nearly tripling the amount of protective enzyme produced inside the cells exposed to the complex of inducers, compared with cells exposed to only one of the inducers. Putzer and his colleagues found strong evidence for the chemical mechanism behind the synergistic effect produced when the two chemicals were combined. The research revealed that two specific inducers, a mercury compound called mercuric chloride and a thiol compound called 2,3-dimercaptopropanol, can bind to each other at two sites, instead of the single bonds attaching other mercury-thiol inducer pairs. This bonding ability, called chelation, makes the complex more stable and could explain why the inducers become more potent when combined. The paper goes on to discuss the cellular mechanisms producing the synergism and the logical implications for the induction of the enzymes, called Phase 2 detoxification enzymes. Ultimately, knowledge from such research could translate into therapies that safeguard against cancer, part of the larger efforts of the Laboratory for Molecular Pharmacology, headed by Dr. Talalay. "This is a major and important scientific contribution, and Ryan is responsible for many of the new ideas," Dr. Talalay wrote in a letter recommending Putzer for a national academic competition. The other scientists involved in the research were Yuesheng Zhang, Tory Prestera, W. David Holtzclaw and Kristina L. Wade, all researchers at Dr. Talalay's lab. Putzer worked on the project for two years, juggling studies strong in humanities as well as the sciences. During his four years at Hopkins, the eclectic undergrad also has managed a busy schedule of volunteer work for humanitarian causes. He has been involved with community programs for the homeless and for handicapped children. He has tutored inner city kids and worked at a center that traces information for the relatives of Nazi Holocaust victims. Then, there are the usual yardsticks of academic achievement. He admits that his dedication to classwork has slipped slightly since he started his Hopkins career, allowing his grade-point average to slide to a disgraceful 3.95. Putzer was named a Beneficial-Hodson Merit Scholar, which pays 60 percent of a student's tuition. He also won a Barry M. Goldwater Scholarship, a Howard Hughes Award for Undergraduate Research and the Provost's Award for Research and Excellence, among other accolades. The Putzer profile, however, adds another dimension to the classic overachiever's curriculum vitae. Amid his studies, research and volunteering, he has developed a religious devotion through the Hopkins Christian Fellowship. "Christianity is essential to my life," said Putzer, who asserts that intelligence must be tempered with humanity. The young scholar sees a common moral thread running through his commitment to Christianity, his desire to help people and become a doctor. "Christ exhorts us to love our neighbors as we love ourselves; in this context, among others, I see medicine as a great canvas of opportunity," he said. "It's a wonderful way to help others who are struggling." Meanwhile, his mentors appreciate both his intellect and his attitude. "Ryan Putzer impressed me as the brightest undergraduate that I've seen in over 25 years at Hopkins," said Gary Posner, a professor of chemistry. "I found him very refreshing, both to teach and to interact with," said biology professor William Busa. "He is what students are supposed to be but often, unfortunately, are not, which is eager to learn, fascinated by ideas and a critical thinker." Putzer's A-plus work in biology is only one side of his academic prowess. He's also pursuing a demanding humanities project, writing a thesis on 18th-century philosopher Immanuel Kant. The thesis explores the influences of Kantian thought on subsequent generations by analyzing the writings of 19th-century writer Soren Kierkegaard. Herbert L. Kessler, a professor in the Department of the History of Art, said there is nothing particularly exceptional about Putzer's voracious appetite for knowledge in the arts and sciences. What's unusual is his ability to excel in both. The fruits of his intellect often surpass those of students who are majoring in humanities, said Dr. Kessler, the Charlotte Bloomberg Professor in the School of Arts and Sciences. "He assimilates all kinds of information and can really develop it synthetically," he said. Putzer will earn two bachelor's degrees with honors, one each in biology and humanities. He intends to enroll in an M.D./Ph.D. program and pursue a career in cancer research but hasn't yet decided where he will attend medical school. His mother, Carolyn Putzer, said her son's exceptional intelligence was evident at a very young age. "It was obvious actually before he started kindergarten, at about 2 years old," she said. "He started speaking with a syntax considerably above that of a 2-year-old." As a teenager, his intellectual interests sprouted in all directions. His affinity for biochemistry blossomed in high school, and in his sophomore year he was the youngest student chosen for the U.S. Chemistry Olympiad. The contest receives thousands of applicants and eventually chooses only six of the brightest. "He is a gifted person, on both sides of his brain," said Carolyn Putzer. "He is as gifted in the humanities as he is in the sciences." But intelligence aside, something else makes him an ideal candidate for medicine, she said. "He is a person who has a great deal of compassion for humanity. He will make a marvelous doctor ... because he cares. And that's so lacking in the world."
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