Working in academia is where Victor Darley-Usmar, Ph.D., always figured he’d land. After earning his doctorate from Essex University, he worked as a postdoc at the University of Oregon and an assistant professor at the University of Tsukuba Medical School in Ibaraki, Japan.
But then he took what he says some in his field would call a diversion — he accepted a job at Wellcome Research Laboratories in his native England, where his team made the landmark discovery that the beneficial free radical nitric oxide can control mitochondrial respiration. When the company was merged with GlaxoSmithKline, he reached out to then-UAB Professor Bruce Freeman, whom he’d met during a collaborative research project, and asked if any academic positions were available here. The Department of Pathology, under the leadership of Jay McDonald, M.D., offered him an opportunity as an academic researcher. That was in 1995, and he’s called UAB home ever since.
Darley-Usmar’s record of success since joining UAB more than two decades ago proves he took the path right for him: He is now the endowed professor of Mitochondrial Medicine and Pathology, vice chair for research within the Department of Pathology and associate dean for Research for the School of Medicine.
These successes have earned him an invitation to deliver the 2017’s Distinguished Faculty Lecture, the highest honor bestowed by the Academic Medical Center on a faculty member who has advanced the frontiers of science and made outstanding contributions to education, research and public service. Darley-Usmar will deliver an invitation-only lecture 6 p.m. March 5 in the Florentine in downtown Birmingham and receive a $5,000 stipend.
Darley-Usmar is an expert in translating basic research in redox biology and bioenergetics to clinical settings, and his research focuses on the contribution of mitochondrial dysfunction to the pathophysiology of human disease. He said two points of his research are of specific interest — the ways metabolism and mitochondrial function change in health and disease and how that translates to a clinical setting.
His studies boil down to one primary tenet: Our bodies use oxygen to kill bacteria and create energy to form cells and to send signals from one part of a cell to another. If clinicians can measure how oxygen is used in patients with various diseases, then they can discover how to improve a patient’s bioenergetic health.
“What I learned from Victor was much bigger than any specific mechanism of disease or cellular process. I learned how to learn and how to solve problems. This mentorship shaped the course of my career by allowing me to tackle big, new ideas and explore areas I don’t have specific expertise in, all because I was mentored to learn.”
“If you set fire to something, you get a lot of heat out of it. If you want to put a fire out, you put a blanket over it to cut off the oxygen. If you can control that energy you get out of the fire, cells can use that to perform whatever functions are needed. That’s what the mitochondria in your body do,” Darley-Usmar said.
Darley-Usmar’s lab developed the Bioenergetic Health Index, a blood test that measures the functionality of both nuclear and mitochondrial genes, which now is being tested as a potential gauge for assessing a patient’s condition in obesity, HIV, alcoholic hepatitis and age-related diseases.
UAB’s Center for Free Radical Biology, led by Darley-Usmar, became an international hub for redox biology research and a recruiting tool for investigators coming to UAB. He was president of the Society for Free Radical Biology and Medicine (2009-10) and earned its Lifetime Achievement Award in Redox Biology. He also was the inaugural editor-in-chief of the new open-access journal Redox Biology.
At UAB, he was vice chair of research and interim co-chair for the Department of Pathology, chaired the Council of Center Directors and the Conflict of Interest Board and was associate dean for postdoctoral education (2003-07), during which time UAB received national recognition as one of the best places to work for postdocs.
“Victor is seen as an important personality who is well known by all the major players in mitochondrial and free radical biology, said Michael Murphy, Ph.D., program director of the Medical Research Council Mitochondrial Biology Unit at the University of Cambridge. “In this, his outgoing and enthusiastic personality is a major part of his appeal and influence. He is certainly not dull or bland! This enables him to act as a great ambassador for free radical and mitochondrial research at UAB, and he is the face of UAB in these international research communities.”
Leaving a legacy
“He is certainly not dull or bland! This enables him to act as a great ambassador for free radical and mitochondrial research at UAB, and he is the face of UAB in these international research communities.”
Darley-Usmar credits the skills he learned during his decade working in the private sector with the level of success he’s achieved at UAB. Freeman, the faculty member who helped recruit Darley-Usmar to UAB, said colleagues appreciated the new associate professor who “masterfully applied many of the management and strategic principles he acquired in industry to an academic environment.”
“It helped me learn how to train people and how to manage groups and projects before coming back to the university environment,” Darley-Usmar said. “I think management skills or learning how to work with people and provide the best working environment is something of value to all research-intensive environments in the public or private sector.”
One way Darley-Usmar has translated those skills is through mentorship. The expanded opportunities UAB provided were a motivating factor when he was considering a move from the private sector. He has mentored or trained more than 30 pre- and postdoctoral researchers, and served on numerous dissertation committees. He also has spearheaded training courses on grant-writing, interview and presentation skills, elevator pitches, tenure and promotion process and academic leadership.
Darley-Usmar has published more than 250 original research papers and an additional 100-plus reviews, editorials and book chapters and organized national and international conferences. He is an internationally known lecturer and recipient of significant National Institutes of Health and other industry research grants. Still, he said, leaving a legacy is more than just doing good research, being well known or earning grants.
“There are two ways you can have a legacy,” Darley-Usmar said. “One is by making important discoveries that change how other people think, but you have to be both fortunate and lucky to do the right thing at the right time. The other is through the people you train in your way of doing science. It’s like a school or apprenticeship, and its impact is amplified way beyond what you yourself and the people in your group can do. Often the biggest impact we have is how we influence our trainees and how they effectively train other people.”
Victor Thannickal, M.D., professor of medicine and pathology and director of Pulmonary, Allergy and Critical Care Medicine, has heard much of Darley-Usmar’s impact on trainees and mentees.
“Often the biggest impact we have is how we influence our trainees and how they effectively train other people.”
“They all share common themes. They describe Victor’s commitment to mentoring, his dedication to his role as a scientific ambassador and his passion for effective leadership,” Thannickal said. “His trainees describe his ready availability to make time to assist with their presentations, scientific papers and grant applications with thoughtful and insightful critiques of their work. Those who have worked in his laboratory describe the inspiring workplace he creates where everyone is encouraged to share ideas freely.”
“What I learned from Victor was much bigger than any specific mechanism of disease or cellular process,” one of Darley-Usmar’s mentees wrote. “I learned how to learn and how to solve problems. This mentorship shaped the course of my career by allowing me to tackle big, new ideas and explore areas I don’t have specific expertise in, all because I was mentored to learn.”
Even a lengthy list of Darley-Usmar’s contributions to his field of research “just scratches the surface of how [he] has provided service and improved the UAB landscape,” said Professor Rakesh Patel, Ph.D., director of the UAB Center of Free Radical Biology.
“It was a risk to take someone mid-career, from another country, who had never written a grant in their lives. That entrepreneurship has always been there at UAB. It has changed over the last 20 years with new technologies, but the willingness of the UAB community to be supportive of each other is still the most attractive attribute that’s led to our success, I think.”
But none of that would have been possible if UAB hadn’t taken a chance on hiring him, Darley-Usmar said — an act directly in line with what he sees as UAB’s continuous spirit of entrepreneurship and boldness.
“It was a risk to take someone mid-career, from another country, who had never written a grant in their lives,” he said. “That entrepreneurship has always been there at UAB. It changes with new technologies, but the willingness to be supportive of each other is still the main characteristic, I think.”
UAB has provided a space and culture for Darley-Usmar to flourish and given him the opportunity to train young researchers to succeed, but the definition of success, he said, is up to them.
“When you’re doing something, don’t evaluate it by saying, ‘Am I successful?’” he said. “That’s one piece of advice I often give: Don’t compare yourself to other people. Only be the person you want to be. Many people are into, ‘This person’s got more grants’ or ‘This person has more students or money,’ but you don’t know whether that’s truly working for them or not.
“The main thing is to get the most out of what you’re doing and enjoy that, and make sure that other people around you get that benefit if you can,” Darley-Usmar said. “Share what you have: ideas and resources.”