Johns Hopkins Gazette: January 30, 1995

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
     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
     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
     "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
     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
     "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."

Go back to Previous Page

Go to Gazette Homepage