Bob Zahorchak, Ph.D., is among the most seasoned scientists and educators at HudsonAlpha. Affectionately known as “Dr. Bob,” he earned his bachelor’s, master’s and Ph.D. in microbiology and immunology from Michigan State University. Today, Dr. Bob draws from his extensive biotech background, serving as a key member of the Educational Outreach team and a mentor to many.
Q: What was your path to HudsonAlpha?
I officially became a HudsonAlpha employee in September of 2008. Before this time, I had been an academic, worked in biotech’s private sector and served as a consultant on a NASA contract.
After I left the university setting in the late 1980s, I joined Research Genetics where I helped to manage the research and development unit for 12 years. I also spent some of my time working with Gene Express, Inc., a gene expression analysis company that was being incubated at Research Genetics.
I eventually started a consulting company here in Huntsville, Red Pearl BioScience Consulting. One of the first projects I managed through Red Pearl was working with doctoral students through a contract with the Partnership for Biotechnology Research. I met Neil Lamb through PBR and started to work with him on a few education-related projects. He later hired me in Educational Outreach.
Q: What influence has Jim Hudson, HudsonAlpha co-founder, had on your career?
I first met Jim when I was an assistant professor in the department of biology at the University of Alabama in Huntsville in the mid-1980s. Jim was a graduate student at the time and worked in my lab for a semester as part of his rotations. Jim also was in a couple of the courses that I taught at the time. He would often stop by my office and we would talk about a variety of science topics ranging from class material to his research to the progress of the Human Genome Project.
I thoroughly enjoyed Jim’s visits and often fondly think back on those discussions. Little did I know what a strong influence he would become on genomics and Huntsville. Later, when I left the university in 1989, Jim offered me a job at the company he had recently started: Research Genetics.
Q: What is your key role in the Educational Outreach team?
I primarily work with students, high school juniors through graduate level. Using metagenomics (the study of microbial communities through molecular techniques), I help students learn and master molecular biology and genomics laboratory concepts and techniques through a program called Sample to Sequence.
Through this semester-long experience, students get a good idea of the process of experimental science and they develop a strong skill-set they can draw upon as they continue their careers in biotechnology. We hope to inspire a deeper interest in the scientific process. Additionally, I help to organize and manage the BioTrain Biotech Boot Camp, a week-long laboratory training session that kicks off the Institute’s summer internship program. I also assist in BioTrain’s weekly professional development sessions and work with the other members of the Educational Outreach team by providing technical help for our educational kits, camps and workshops.
Q: What sparked your passion for science and what keeps it strong?
I have been interested in science as long as I can remember but I think that both the access to books at an early age and growing up during the space age prompted my interest. We had some volumes of The Book of Knowledge and I enjoyed reading all parts of it, especially the science sections. One of my most vivid, memories regarding this is when I was in early elementary school. My father would often take us to the library. During one of these visits, I remember trying to check out a biology textbook, but the librarian thought that I was too young. Dad checked the book out for me, and I spent hours reading the book but not really understanding the content at the time. That is just one example of my parents’ support for my interest in science, which included allowing me to have a chemistry lab in the basement.
Q: What is it like to see some of your former students and former co-workers coming into their own as HudsonAlpha scientists?
This is one aspect of my career that gives me much pleasure. I feel quite lucky that I have been able to keep in touch with a number of people who were previously students or co-workers in my classes or labs. Most educators are not this lucky. I know that I am not integrally responsible for any of their successes but hope that I may have played a little part – maybe I helped them understand a concept, pick up a little trick to a procedure, or I may simply have piqued their interest in some aspect of science. In any case, it is quite exciting to see the creative and useful ways that people apply their education to careers.
Q: What do you like best about working at HudsonAlpha?
I enjoy the ability to interact with students in the laboratory on a one-on-one basis, as well as working in a place that is this dynamic. It is sometimes intimidating to work with people who are so much more talented than me, but it is inspiring to watch the process, see the activity and share in the excitement.
Q: Can you tell us something about you we might be surprised to know?
I used to play the guitar, banjo, mandolin and sing in a band called Rhubarb (not the same one that you can find on the Internet) when I was in college. We weren’t half bad. “Those were the days, my friend.”