Vital Signs » Winter 2018
Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer is a classic, animated television special that has brought holiday joy to millions since it first aired in 1964. Underlying the magical notions of Santa Claus, reindeer and elves at the North Pole, the claymation story shares values of acceptance, inclusion, and teamwork. Many remember Rudolph and the shiny red nose that made him different. There’s also the Island of Misfit Toys, and Hermey, an elf not cut out for work in a toy factory.
This character, who instead wanted to be a dentist, had special prominence for Eric Bennett, Ph.D. Long before he was chair and professor in the Department of Neuroscience, Cell Biology and Physiology, a two-year-old Bennett thought he might grow up to be a dentist like Hermey. That dream was capped in high school, but Bennett still chose a path less traveled like the animated elf.
“I wanted to be a dentist from like age 2 to 16, but then I realized, ‘I don’t think I want to be a dentist,’” Bennett said. “When I graduated from high school, the principal asked what I wanted to do. And he announced to everybody, I didn’t know he was going to do this, that I wanted to become a genetic engineer, which at that point barely existed.”
It was an incredibly futuristic career to choose at the time, and Bennett admits he may have been trying to act cool so his fellow classmates would think he was ahead of the game. “But anyway, it turned out that that’s kind of what I ended up doing,” he said.
After high school, Bennett attended Cornell University, where he majored in applied and engineering physics. There were only a handful of applied physics programs in the country at the time, most led by ex-Manhattan Project scientists, and he describes what he studied as essentially physics with an experimental focus. Bennett credits the field with helping him learn to organize his thoughts and to think critically.
Again branching away from his fellow classmates, who coupled physics courses with electrical engineering study, Bennett chose to pursue more concentrated study into biophysics. It’s a very broad field whose aim is to use sound physics and math to formalize the biology of the human body.
“I tend to be more at the cellular end of things, like a cellular physicist, which basically, simply means I try to understand how the cell works from a more quantitative angle,” Bennett said.
Following a year in Cleveland working as an engineer, Bennett went back to college to obtain master’s and Ph.D. degrees in biophysics from the University of Rochester School of Medicine and Dentistry. He completed post-doctoral work at the University of Colorado School of Medicine in Denver and then served on the faculty at the University of South Florida Morsani College of Medicine. He found what he wanted to do working in a field few understand.
His experiences have made him good at explaining its finer points in terms everyday people can grasp. The shelves of his office are lined with teaching awards, for which he credits coming from a family full of educators. The discipline is “in his blood.”
When he shares his research and the numerous firsts he and colleagues have helped uncover, his eyes light up. He clips the ends of sentences to make points. He clarifies and dissects, stressing the significance of each find and how they build on each other. It’s a matter of heart for him.
“The heart does two things. It sends an electrical signal, which then coordinates the precise contraction of the heart so that you pump blood to the body. That’s basically the function of the heart,” Bennett said. “So you have this electrical signaling, you have this contraction, all of which are highly coordinated, and you have to somehow take that electrical signal and translate it into a contractile event.”
Bennett has helped make breakthroughs in electrical signaling including research to better understand the cellular events that contribute to arrhythmias. His efforts described for the first time how the large amount of sugars attached to the ion channels expressed in excitable cells directly modulate ion channel function and thereby contribute to the control and modulation of electrical signaling in the cardiac and neuromuscular systems. He now believes that the effect of these sugars on ion channel function may modulate more than just electrical signaling, potentially contributing to a novel mechanism for heart failure.
Still, Bennett only seems led to the next great puzzle. He’s a passionate researcher on a hunt for answers — one who also never stops looking for more questions.
“I think that’s probably one of the biggest things in science is that you absolutely need to be creative, and I worry that there’s not enough creative scientists out there,” Bennett said. “A lot of people tend to get into a groove, in a rut, and they tend to just kind of, ‘Oh I know I can do this, so let’s just get this paper out and be done.’ And that’s fine. But the problem with that is if everybody does that, science will end up being stifled at some point and not move forward.”
In other words, there’s more to science than publish or perish. Advancing is key. And he pushes forward knowing full well that failure is likely. With about 90 percent of research ending in failure, Bennett has found a way to persevere.
“You have to be that type of person that really thinks ‘that’s’ amazing. And it’s all worth banging your head against a wall many times before ‘that’ happens,” Bennett said. “Science is one of those things. You don’t have to be the brightest. You need to be creative and you need to be pretty headstrong to continue.”
He hopes graduate students in his lab think about their research not just when they are sitting in the lab, but at any moment, like in the middle of the night. If they have such similar passion, Bennett believes they can make it in science.
When he’s not in the lab, Bennett is usually outdoors. He likes to play volleyball and is fond of hiking. “I used to be an avid volleyball player, even though I’m short, and I used to play mostly sand but also indoor,” Bennett said. “I’ve been to virtually every state and metropark in the area actually, several times. Every weekend I go for some kind of hike in a park. It’s wonderful. And I just have to get my bike up and running.”
— Daniel Kelly