Scientist Profiles - The Jacobsons Hit the Jackpot
By Julia E. Pheifer

Most people are lucky if they find a profession that they love. But to find a profession and the partner of their dreams…well, that must be like winning the lottery.

Drs. Elaine and Myron, or Mike, Jacobson won two of life’s big sweepstakes—the “What Will I Do With My Life?” game and the “Who Will Be My Partner?” challenge. Not only were they able to pursue the careers of their dreams, they were able to pursue those careers together.

Mike is a professor of medicinal chemistry in the department of pharmacology and toxicology at the University of Arizona, a professor in the Bio5 Institute, and a researcher for the Arizona Cancer Institute. Elaine is also a professor of pharmacology and toxicology, a professor in the Bio5 Institute, and a researcher with the Arizona Cancer Center. Both have written more than 100 articles about their research, published in such prestigious journals as “Science” and the “International Journal of Biochemistry and Cell Biology.”

Their life together began in the lab at Kansas State University. She was a lab technician and he was a graduate student putting together his first research project. He noticed her and realized, “I had to act fast,” he recalled. “At that time Elaine had been accepted to medical school.” He asked her to be a lab assistant over the summer and over that time they got to know each other.

They were both from similar hard-working farming backgrounds; he from a family of Norwegian extraction in Wisconsin, she from a Swedish immigrant family in Kansas. But both, after watching their parents scrape to get by, knew one thing: Green Acres as not the place to be.

“ And the only thing wrong with that life was all of that 18-hour-a-day hard work, but no guaranteed income,” Elaine explained, with the slightest trace of a Swedish accent. “I would listen to my parents wonder…they had income once a year from the sale of their beef cattle, and there would be years when the number was a negative number. I listened to that all I could handle. I wanted to do something different.”

Mike still owns his family’s dairy farm in Wisconsin and his 91-year-old mother still lives a nearby town. The farm is a getaway for the couple, but not their bread and butter.

Elaine chose biochemistry as her undergraduate major and Mike decided on biochemistry as a field of graduate study. He chose to attend Kansas State University in Manhattan, Kansas. There he encountered the pretty lab technician.

“ So we got married the summer after I got my BS.” Elaine said. That was 1967. Mike had a fellowship from NASA with a “huge” salary of $200 a month, stemming from the Space Race of the 1950s and 1960s. The Russians had launched Sputnik and the U.S. government launched programs for training scientists. “How Sputnik related to biochemistry is not at all clear,” he said.
Both agreed that their respective parents never really understood what their children were doing but they were always supportive of their efforts.

“ You will go to college as long as you want to, but we can’t help you with money,” Elaine paraphrased her parents. And, just in case this whole science thing fell through, her parents strongly recommended that she take typing and short-hand because they said, “Being able to use that typewriter is going to earn you a living!”

“ They don’t realize that I use that keyboard 12 to 18 hours a day,” she said, laughing. “So it was a very valuable learning experience.”

After they both got their Ph.D. degrees in biochemistry, they were off to the University of Utah in Salt Lake City and the Mayo Clinic and Foundation in Rochester, Minn., for post-doctoral work in cell and molecular biology.

After they both got their Ph.D. degrees in biochemistry, they were off to the University of Utah in Salt Lake City and the Mayo Clinic and Foundation in Rochester, Minn., for post-doctoral work in cell and molecular biology.

At the Mayo Clinic, they started the research that they continue to this day. At the core of this work is an understanding of molecular and cellular responses to stress, particularly to the stress of UV radiation from the sun on skin cells. They have strived to translate their work into effective treatments for skin cancer. One aspect of their research into nicotinamide adenine dinucleotide (NAD) metabolism led to the founding of their company Niadyne, so named because NAD is a derivative of niacin. Previously, the products were only available from dermatologists, but soon the products will be distributed to the public via Nia24.com. And a third company is in the works pending clinical trials on another topical product.

While they used to have hobbies like traveling, golf, tennis, and music, now the company is an all-encompassing hobby. “In reality we have two full-time jobs,” Elaine explained. But it’s not all drudgery. In May, they will visit Europe to attend the wedding of a former student and check on the trials of their new product.

But where did two farm-kids get the idea they could pursue a career in science, much less be big-time scientists? Both got their introduction to the possibilities of science from chemistry teachers. How did those teachers get their attention?

“ The instructor’s love for the topic, his insight to see that I had connected with chemistry, and the way he conducted himself and his life was really inspiring to me,” Elaine said. Dwayne Pickett taught all of the science classes in Elaine’s rural Kansas high school and volunteered as the school’s assistant football, track and basketball coach. Long before running became as ubiquitous as it is today, her teacher was out running six to 10 miles every morning then coming to work day and night at the school. “To me, that discipline, of all the additional things he did in his life…was something I aspired to.”

After showing that he was someone she could believe in, he showed that he believed in his pupil and pushed her in the right direction. Elaine and Mike agree that anyone can pursue this line of work, that it doesn’t take a particular gift for science. “I think there are rare exceptions where people fall into a talent maybe like painting, or playing the piano by ear, but I don’t believe it’s a “natural” thing. It’s a matter of learning and being stimulated to learn. In fact I think that I could have been among the students who might have been a difficult learner because I have a bit of dyslexia, and the way I learn required a little bit more effort, yes, but you compensate with time or approach.”

Mike was inspired by Alice Keegan, a chemistry teacher who didn’t need to teach. Her husband was a successful attorney, Mike said, but Keegan apparently had the need to show these high school students the world of science. Three of the people in her chemistry class went into science as a profession, Mike said. The next year, the home economics teacher took over the chemistry class and none of them went into science. “I’m not sure who the lucky ones are,” he joked. He reflected on the importance of these teachers in their budding careers.

“ I think that is very much what drives us at all levels,” Mike said. “We have the joy, really, of challenging students at many levels…So that’s kind of our pay-back to those teachers.”

PULSE is a project of the Community Outreach and Education Program of the Southwest Environmental Health Sciences Center and is funded by:

NIH/NCRR award #16260-01A1
The Community Outreach and Education Program is part of the Southwest Environmental Health Sciences Center: an NIEHS Award


Supported by NIEHS grant # ES06694

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