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Week of 26 September 1997

Vol. I, No. 5

Feature Article

The accidental purist

Physiologist Benjamin Kaminer says that breakthroughs, in life and in the lab, are often the result of "random collision."

by Eric McHenry

Benjamin Kaminer doesn't mind approaching prickly subjects. In fact, his research requires it.

Chair of the department of physiology at the School of Medicine, Kaminer investigates calcium regulation in the eggs of sea urchins when he's not busy preparing or delivering lectures.

His dedication to both the pedagogical and research aspects of his profession were recognized Thursday night at the New Faculty Orientation in Metcalf Hall, when president Jon Westling presented Kaminer with the 1998 University Scholar/ Teacher of the Year Award.

The $2,000 prize, Westling said, is reserved for "someone who brings to the classroom both exemplary erudition and the art of conveying that knowledge to students."

"You have no better model than Dr. Kaminer," he said, addressing the new faculty, "both as scholar and as teacher."

Such accolades are nothing new to Kaminer.

Benjamin Kaminer

Benjamin Kaminer

At last spring's commencement, he was honored with MED's Stanley L. Robbins Award for Excellence in Teach-ing, a prize whose recipient is determined by students.

"Those students," Westling said in presenting the Scholar/Teacher Award, "speak repeatedly of [Kaminer's] enthusiasm, his love of learning, and his commitment to the highest academic standards.

"One student warns that, 'His method of teaching is so wonderful that you stop writing and just listen, which is not always good.' "

Working to engage students visually, Kaminer acknowledges, is integral to his lectures. He's been known to stand on desks, inflate animal lungs, and pass nasogastric tubes down his own nose to make sure a class fully understands a process he's presenting.

"I've always felt the need to be able to demonstrate models to the students -- to actually let them observe phenomena," says Kaminer. "I like to convey very important, basic physical and chemical principles that apply to the body. The body is a machine, and it follows all the laws of physics and chemistry."

"He provides wonderful demonstrations that really make the concepts come alive for students," says Judith Saide, who has taught with Kaminer in the department of physiology for 20 years. "Even in front of 200 students, he's able to make the material easily accessible."

Kaminer was born in Poland, but his immediate family moved to South Africa when he was very young.

"There was a migration of, particularly, the Jewish population from Eastern Europe at the time," he says. "They were suffering from Russian pogroms and other anti-Semitic elements, and America and South Africa were opening up. Diamonds and gold were discovered in South Africa, and there was the prospect of making a living."

His parents' decision was prescient. Anti-Semitism in Europe, of course, only became more pervasive as the Second World War approached. The Holocaust claimed every relative of Kaminer's who had remained in Poland.

In 1946, Kaminer received his medical degree from the University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg. Partly out of unease with the political climate in South Africa at the time, he departed to London for post-graduate research in 1949, but circumstances compelled him to return two years later.

"Many events in one's life are accidental and unplanned," he says, "and often involve random collision. Many important choices are brought about by random collision. I had a sudden call that my mother was seriously ill in South Africa, and my wife and I had to leave everything in London very abruptly. She had cancer, and I didn't know how long I'd have to remain there.

"I visited my old medical school and some of my old friends, and there was a new chairman of the department of physiology. He suggested that I join them in the meantime. So I came into the field of physiology through this tragic accident in my life."

Kaminer has been at BU since 1970. He came on the recommendation of Nobel Laureate Albert Szent-Györgyi, with whom he worked in the Marine Biology Laboratory at Woods Hole. Kaminer says his mentoring by Szent-Györgyi was another un-planned development. Some of Kaminer's early research had been informed by Szent-Györgyi's work. After eight years of teaching at his alma mater, a Rockefeller Fellowship and a long-overdue sabbatical enabled Kaminer to come to Szent-Györgyi's lab in the United States.

"When we had first left South Africa in 1949," said Kaminer, "we had decided to leave for good. I returned because my mother became ill. But we had, in a sense, said goodbye to South Africa because we felt that in the long run we couldn't tolerate living under the social and political conditions there, and I felt helpless to do anything about them. So when I returned, even though for various reasons I remained there for eight years, I always saw it as temporary. My plan was to work with Szent-Györgyi for a year, then go back to England. But as it turned out -- you see what I mean about accidents -- I remained in Szent-Györgyi's laboratory for 10 years, and then I went to Harvard for a short while, and then I was offered this position.

"Life is a series of accidents," he says. "Obviously I'm on a general pathway, which keeps me in science and medicine. I'm not on Wall Street, nor am I manufacturing plumbing utilities. Within a particular trajectory, each person is subject to all sorts of accidents."

And for all the precision it demands, laboratory work is no different, he says.

"Serendipity plays a role in research, and so do intuitive ideas. You pursue some, and some turn out to be wrong. You must always be ready to drop an idea when you see that you're on the wrong pathway."