He was going to wind up at a state university in Kentucky, until a Penn alum caught a glimpse of Randy Strich in a televised high school game. That change of course has led to a career in medical research.
The Ivy League's a long way from Hebron, Kentucky, where Randy Strich grew up. But to him, football not only made the League a reality, it paved the way for his current career as a renowned researcher.
College options at Conner High School seemed pretty limited. "Going out of state wasn't even on the radar," says Strich. "Conversations with the guidance counselor went like this: 'do you want to go to Northern, Western, Eastern, UK or Morehead (all Kentucky state universities)?" Strich, who wanted biology as his career since early in high school, played basketball, tennis and football, earning all-state honors in football.
It was a local TV experiment that put Strich on the road to the University of Pennsylvania. "A Penn alumnus saw me play on one of the rare high school broadcasts at the time, and sent my name to the football coach," says Strich. "I had never heard of Penn."
"Head coach [Harry Gamble] visited with a pretty slick (for a country boy like me) slide show with ivy covered walls" remembers Strich. "Then, I visited Penn's campus. It was 1976, just in time for the bicentennial, so Philly was looking pretty good." He was sold.
College was a culture shock. High school "didn't quite prepare one for the competition found in east coast colleges," he notes wryly. The demands of football also took a toll. Penn's biology classes often had afternoon labs and during football season "that was problematic." His solution? "Take one fewer class in the fall," and "an extra class in the spring. Some classes were only offered in the fall and I had to take them in the summer."
Football had its rewards. He remembers best the "first varsity game I started as a sophomore at Yale. Beautiful crisp fall day, great atmosphere and a great game. I recovered a fumble and got my name in the New York Times." He lettered in 1978-79, playing mostly halfback and linebacker, and was named 2nd Team All-Ivy in 1979.
Strich was even able to pursue research as an undergraduate. "My senior year I worked in the laboratory of Dr. Yoshitaka Suyama. He was a great mentor and provided me with guidance even after I left Penn." He also applied to grad school in biology.
Football took a toll academically. "Of course [football] hurt," asserts Strich. "Admission committees look at grades, GRE scores and undergraduate research, not tackles or win-loss records. Playing football for four years required time and energy that could have been spent elsewhere."
It even affected his relationship with Professor Suyama. "He was concerned about letting a football player in his lab as he thought I would break a significant portion of his glassware," Strich remembers, "luckily the glassware remained intact and the research went well."
He went to grad school at the University of Illinois, completing an M.S. in 1983 and a Ph.D. in 1986. He then did a postdoctoral stint at the University of Chicago from 1986-91, and it was here that "he discovered a family of genes (known as UME genes) that prevent meiosis (sexual cell division) from occurring," according to colleague Edward Winter of Thomas Jefferson University.
He continued this research at the renowned Fox Chase Cancer Center in Philadelphia, where his goal was to "understand the molecular mechanisms by which cell fate decisions are made."
This seemingly benign-sounding goal is actually quite profound. Cell fate decisions are just that, what a cell decides to do with itself: multiply, die, or go out of control and turn cancerous.
Strich describes his research in a similarly dispassionate manner, saying it studies "the ability to manipulate this decision to get cells that shouldn't be growing (e.g., cancers) to stop, or non-proliferating cells (e.g., damaged neurons) to grow again."
Professor Winter is excited about Strich's work. "UME genes have since been found in humans," explains Winter, "and have been found to control many cellular process including somatic (non-sexual) cell division. Thus, Dr. Strich's work has led to deeper insights into a variety of cellular processes, including the cancer problem."
In other words, he's researching a cellular function so fundamental that it could both lead to a cure for cancer, or a cure for paralysis. Maybe both. That's quite a goal.
How promising is this research? According to Professor Sal Caradonna, Chairman of the Department of Molecular Biology at UMDNJ - School of Osteopathic Medicine (where Strich moved in 2005), his work is "particularly exciting."
His research has increased knowledge of oxidative stress mechanisms, which are "now known to be directly related to programmed cell death, an area of keen interest in cancer biology," says Caradonna. Specifically, Strich has established that "cyclin C is directly involved in the oxidative stress-induced cell death pathway." Moreover, Strich's 15-year run of published research using yeast has helped give it a "rightful place as one of the seminal model systems in cancer biology."
Even now, football lessons help guide Strich's career. "Doing basic research has many setbacks before one makes an advance," he says "the lessons learned in sports of believing in yourself and working through the tough spots have been helpful during many points in my career."
And he hasn't forgotten how to be a team player. "His research ties in with a number of my faculty's work," says Caradonna, "this is the reason we recruited him."
— Stephen Eschenbach