Grad student on fast track in physiology

PhD student Banek is already being recruited for postdoctoral programs
PhD student Banek is already being recruited for postdoctoral programs

Everything just seems to happen faster for Chris Banek.

He was a dedicated researcher before he'd finished his undergraduate studies at the University of Minnesota-Duluth. At 22, he was the senior graduate student in a human physiology laboratory at the University of Oregon. By 23, he had co-authored 10 peer-reviewed scientific journal articles and a book chapter on sex differences in the developmental programming of adult disease.

Now a Ph.D. student in human physiology, Banek still has to complete his dissertation work in UO assistant professor Jeff Gilbert's lab – but universities have already started recruiting him for postdoctoral programs. At this pace, he could have his first faculty appointment in a medical school before he's 30.

Banek credits his rapid ascent to an early passion for science, a competitive drive galvanized by sports and an opportunity at the UO to be a part of Gilbert’s cutting-edge research.

Banek studies heart and kidney health and complications in pregnancy. In 2012 alone, he won the American Physiological Society Water and Electrolyte Homeostasis Pre-Doctoral Research Recognition Award; the Society for Experimental Biology and Medicine Young Investigator Award; and the Council for High Blood Pressure Research New Investigator Travel Award for Trainees. He was also recently selected to serve a three-year term as the trainee representative to the American Physiological Society, during which he will represent undergraduate, graduate and post-doctoral trainees and advocate for professional development opportunities for all trainees within the society.

Banek's passion for science surfaced early; he still remembers his first childhood chemistry kit and the “little fires” he started that got him in trouble with his parents. He grew up in Minnesota, so he did what Minnesotans do – played hockey year-round, distinguishing himself as an athlete.

But Banek had to find a different outlet for that competitive spirit when he went to college, so he channeled his drive into his studies. When he discovered how satisfying research can be, Banek willingly traded hockey skates and morning workouts for lab coats and cell cultures.

While at UM-D, Banek was introduced to Gilbert, then an assistant professor in the University of Minnesota Medical School.

Banek's focus at the time was biochemistry and biophysics, but working with Gilbert on high blood pressure complications related to pregnancy convinced him that his true love is physiology. Together, the two laid the initial groundwork for a study published recently in Hypertension, a journal of the American Heart Association, in which they found exercise could be beneficial in alleviating hypertension during pregnancy.

“With biochemistry, you're dealing with microscopic and abstract research – you don't see what's going on with the organism itself,” Banek said. “With physiology, you can see how changes affect the organism – such as observing blood pressure changes after controlling small changes in specific proteins that effect whole-organism cardiovascular health and control.”

After Gilbert joined the UO's human physiology department, Banek followed, entering the graduate program in early 2011 and joining Gilbert's lab the following summer. The timing was perfect: Gilbert was just setting up his lab and he gave Banek considerable latitude in helping to design it.

Banek picked several of the lab’s equipment packages and helped with the choices for a fluorescent microscope and the telemetry system used to measure blood pressure in experiments.

“Chris had already developed a strong research background (as an undergraduate),” Gilbert said. “He knows his way around a laboratory, is very self-sufficient and self-motivated and he takes responsibility for his work. I feel Chris found that setting up the lab was an important learning experience and will help him in the long run with his career.”

“I've always loved science,” Banek said. “While working with Dr. Gilbert, he’s given me plenty of valuable learning opportunities, such as lab start-up design and grant-writing experience.”

-- story and photo by communications specialist Matt Cooper, UO media relations