The creative scientist

With a vaudeville performer father and a dancer mother, you’d expect Kyle Judkins ’08 to pursue a career in the arts. Tall, poised and engaging, the 24-year-old might be an actor or a musician. (In fact, he plays drums in a jazz band.) But Judkins is a scientist; a biologist to be exact.

Kyle JudkinsAs an associate scientist in exploratory biology at pharmaceutical giant Pfizer Inc. (developers and manufacturers of Zoloft, Lipitor and Viagra, among others), Judkins contributed to original research on diabetes.

“So much of science is art,” says the biology major and chemistry minor. “I don’t like treating science like a technician.”

He was talented enough to land a position at Pfizer right after graduation from Wheaton in July 2008 and worked there until late January of this year. Now he is applying to fulfill a dream to go to medical school, hoping for a fall 2010 start. Having more than a year of professional research experience, as well as his Wheaton foundation in science, will take him far down that road.

“I’ve gained a huge understanding of the drug industry, and that’s extremely important for a doctor to have,” he says. His interest lies in the field of osteopathy, a branch of medicine that places emphasis on the musculoskeletal system and the body’s ability to heal itself. “What I like about the field is that osteopaths treat the whole person, not just the symptoms,” says Judkins.

At Pfizer he was a member of the muscle/adipose group, part of the Target Exploration Unit. Along with a team of 12, he was charged with identifying new “targets” for the treatment of type 2 diabetes. A target, Judkins explains, is a gene, protein or molecule in the body that can be altered to ameliorate a condition, in this case diabetes.

When Judkins joined the company, he initially worked in osteoporosis research and moved to diabetes-related work in January 2009. How did someone just out of college land such a prestigious position? It all started at Wheaton.

“I owe my interest in research to Dr. Tong,” says Judkins, referring to Edmund Tong, professor of biology. “He was always excited about a new idea and had no personal agenda except to allow his students’ intellects to grow. He was, and still is, a wonderful mentor and friend.”

The two first met at the start of Judkins’s sophomore year. Tong’s human physiology course was filled, and Judkins, planning for a career in medicine, needed the course to get into medical school. “I pushed hard to get into that class. I was pretty self-righteous about it,” says Judkins.

Silence is golden

Kyle Judkins mimeIronically, it was not his passion for science that got him into the class; it was mime. Judkins spent the summer after his freshman year in a mime workshop in his home state of Maine. (His father, Randy, who performs a one-person comedy, vaudeville and variety show, uses mime in his act.) “I had just come from this workshop, which I did purely to explore an interest outside science, and I told Dr. Tong that I had lots of ideas for a project that would incorporate mime and physiology,” says Judkins.

Tong remembers Judkins’s enthusiasm and persuasiveness. “He convinced me. Once he mentioned mime, I decided to let him in as an extra student,” says Tong, who is very interested in seeing connections between disciplines through the college’s Connections Curriculum, which links courses across academic areas. Tong thought Judkins’s mime experience would be a perfect fit for his Connections class, “Body, Form & Motion,” which links anatomy and physiology to figure drawing and dance courses.

For his final project in the class, Judkins struck several mime poses (pretending to lean against a wall or sit in a chair, for example) and had classmates measure his muscle activity and contractions through electrophysiology. A poster Judkins made illustrating his project still hangs outside Tong’s office.

Judkins conducted original research with Tong, studying blood vessel growth, or angiogenesis, in zebrafish. “My research was his research. His research was my research,” says Tong about the collaboration. Judkins’s honors thesis grew out of this work, and a major component was developing a new method of quantifying blood vessel growth in zebrafish, called motion-based angiogenesis analysis.

The research Tong and Judkins conducted focused on how vasodilators (in this case, Viagra, Cialis or Levitra) affect blood vessel growth in zebrafish. Drugs that dilate blood vessels can also increase blood vessel growth, says Tong. The fish were given a vasodilator, and an incision was made in each fish’s tail. The researchers then examined the level of angiogenesis to determine the effect the drugs had on healing. To quantify blood vessel growth, Judkins and his lab partners placed the fish under a microscope and counted each tiny vessel. The process was laborious and not always accurate, and Judkins knew there must be a better way.

He had the idea of using image analysis software that tracks the motion of blood in the vessels to quantify the angiogenesis. “I had the idea,” says Judkins. “Others had the expertise.” He collaborated with fellow students, Tong and Geoff Collins, associate professor of geology and chair of physics and astronomy. Using two software programs-ImageJ and Environment for Visualizing Images-they analyzed a video clip of regenerated tissue. Then, examining deviations among individual frames, they created an image that highlighted all vessels through which blood flowed. From this final image, the group was able to automatically quantify the newly developed vasculature. It was a breakthrough, and Tong and Judkins immediately knew they had discovered methodology that could help other scientists.

“We did this with a 10-second video clip,” explains Judkins. “It was noninvasive, easy to do and just as accurate as more complicated methods.” Moreover, the method is inexpensive, and perfect for college programs with limited funding.

Students continued the work in the lab after Judkins graduated, and a paper on the methodology,

co-authored by Tong, Collins, Judkins and several other Wheaton students, was published in Zebrafish in September 2009. One of the reviewers for the paper was so impressed¬† that he began using the method with his students, says Tong. In April 2008, Tong, Judkins and Philip Manos ’08 traveled to San Diego to present the paper at the annual Experimental Biology meeting, the largest conference in biomedical research.

In his 37 years at Wheaton, Tong has mentored 32 thesis students. He confesses to spending more time with Judkins than any other. “Partly it was because the project was so exciting.” But Judkins’s stubbornness and inability to take criticism were obstacles that initially prevented him from doing his best work, says Tong. “He did the hard thing and told me when I was wrong and when I could do better,” says Judkins. “Dr. Tong joked with me about my occasional hubris and stubborn attitude, but I know he was serious about it, too.”

“At Wheaton, we really try to help students develop their potential and overcome their shortcomings,” says Tong, who feels his hard work paid off. At the Experimental Biology meeting, Judkins was “so poised, so confident, most biomedical scientists who talked with him thought he was a graduate student,” says Tong.

Curiosity leads to exploration

Kyle JudkinsJudkins grew up in an unconventional home in Scarborough, Maine. With artists for parents, he “never had a model of someone going to work from nine to five.” While he was involved in the arts-taking dance classes, playing the drums and participating in a “children’s circus”-he also had a keen interest in the world around him. “I used to put things in the microwave to see what would happen. I would walk around in the woods and observe different trees and write down observations,” he says. A “fabulous and creative” biology teacher at Scarborough High School further strengthened his interest in the sciences.

He chose Wheaton for its excellent science program and a small, intimate setting. “I wanted a place where I could develop close relationships with my professors,” he says. But his strong interest in science didn’t preclude him from taking advantage of the many opportunities a liberal arts education offers. In his sophomore year, Judkins and his roommates, Joseph Lee ’08 and Matthew Lorello ’08, founded the Wheaton Tutoring Outreach Program (WTOP), which pairs Wheaton tutors with Norton’s public school students. Judkins remembers helping a high-school student prepare for his MCAS test (Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System). “He was failing geometry, and without the group’s help, he might have failed the test and not graduated. It was amazing to see him improve, inspired simply from seeing that someone cared about his future and education.” Judkins headed the program through his senior year, and it is still going strong today.

A pole vaulter, he was also part of Wheaton’s track team, and continues to be engaged in the sport as Connecticut College’s pole-vaulting coach and a member of Skyjumpers Connecticut pole-vault club in Norwich, Conn. He also played drums in the Wheaton Jazz Band.

“I’m really glad I went there,” says Judkins. “Wheaton prepared me to be a thinker, especially my senior year working with Dr. Tong on my thesis.” The combination of creative and analytical problem solving Judkins used as an undergraduate helped him every day in his Pfizer position. “It increased my ability to adapt and think outside the box,” he says.

His adaptability is a trait Judkins’s former supervisor at Pfizer applauds. “Recent college graduates bring a fresh, unbiased perspective to long-standing questions that the field has been struggling with,” says Dr. Nathan LeBrasseur. “Kyle has supported established projects being led by more experienced scientists and, in recent months, has assumed responsibility for identifying new targets for diabetes.”

Judkins is proving how adaptable he can be. In late January, Pfizer had a sudden round of layoffs that claimed his job, along with a large number of staff from his department. He’s currently pursuing jobs internally in other departments. In the meantime, he’s applying to medical school to become an osteopathic physician. He had always planned to go to medical school, but this pushed him to speed up his plans. Life happens.

“The crunch is on,” he said. “I feel very resilient. Resiliency is crucial in this job market, and a diverse skill set and knowledge base is hugely beneficial. The fact that I’m capable of competing in the research world and the medical world has a great deal to do with the diverse education I received at Wheaton.”