Talking Real Science with Tim Hacker

This episode of #ShareScience features Tim Hacker, PhD, director of the Cardiovascular Physiology Core Facility at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Throughout his career, Tim has established several cardiovascular disease models, including myocardial infarction, pulmonary hypertension, and myocardial stunning and hibernation models. He also shares his expertise with the world by developing microsurgery and imaging training programs for students and research professionals. In this interview, Tim shares his career path and insights for young scientists on what it’s like to run a core lab at an academic institution.

Where did you grow up and how did your youth influence your path and passion towards science?

I grew up in suburban Milwaukee, Wisconsin. I have really early memories of wanting to be an inventor. I remember going into the basement of my house and cutting blocks of wood and pounding them together in hope that they would do something. Mostly, I succeeded in not cutting myself or pounding my thumb with a hammer. In the fourth grade, we did some science experiments using bean seeds, and I was hooked. I thought it was the coolest thing ever, and I actually understood at that point (in a limited way) how science works, and it seemed really cool.

“I had this, I think, innate curiosity about how things in the world around me worked and was fascinated by that.”

Then I got busy and went through puberty and stuff like that and forgot about what else was going on. It dawned on me in high school that inventors and scientists are one in the same. Some of my dreams and passions came together at that point, but I still really had no clue how you could marry anything together or what a job like that would look like. That gets me to college, where I had a really strong interest in biology and how the human body works.

Where did you study and how did you end up in regenerative medicine and cardiovascular science?

I did my undergraduate and graduate work at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. As an undergraduate student, I messed around in the biological sciences, still not really knowing what I wanted to do. At some point, I took a biochemistry class and everything clicked for me there.

“I love the pathways of biochemistry, and it really dawned on me that if you understood what’s happening at the subcellular level, you can really understand what’s happening in a whole body organism.”

I was really starting to have a strong interest in human performance. What makes someone click? What makes someone a better athlete? How can you push those ideas to your advantage?

Is there any one person who was or is the greatest influence on your career?

Probably my parents, to some extent, because I think they did a really good job of developing a curiosity in us and having us think critically about things. They helped us ask these questions and never limited us in any way. In a more professional world, my first advisor when I started my master’s degree was Dr. Bill Stanley.

He was a crazy cat, basically. He was an amazing guy. He was really fun and he was unbelievably encouraging to me. I never really thought of myself as someone that is smart enough to get a PhD; I continued on scholastically for other reasons that we could talk about later. I think he understood me, and I understood him. He had this great work-life balance. He wasn’t what I would consider a typical scientist, but he really was very practical. He knew when to dive deep into a subject, and when to let off and start doing experiments and make mistakes.

It was really fun to watch him in progress and to understand how science really works. My vision of it was quite a bit different from what we did in his lab, in the experiments that we did and the way we tried things. Truthfully, he was fun. He was really a funny guy, and he did have his passion. He had, again, this big curiosity. He wanted to know something about everything and how things work. It was a beautiful marriage, basically, between him and I. He encouraged me to keep going and keep thinking and keep doing these things, and so it made it all really easy for me.

What led you to the cardiovascular physiology core facility and what does your day-to-day look like?

Like a lot of scientists, and I’ve heard people say this before, it’s just luck. You start out with an idea, and I was interested in human performance and ways to tweak the body to make it better so that you could perform better. Then the reality sets in that you need to have funding for that. When I landed in Bill Stanley’s lab, he was doing exercise research.

My PhD is in exercise physiology, actually, and he was looking at how exercise impacts cardiac metabolism and disease in particular. That was pretty important for me because I wanted to understand human health and create a healthier person. There was also funding there, and being able to marry those was fun. Cardiology is easy to get behind and is interesting.

“If your heart’s not pumping, nothing else is working, and so that was a strong interest for me.”

As you move along, you keep following these pathways and wonder how you can get funded. You start with a bigger question, but you realize you have to answer 25 smaller questions, including developing models. As I started to develop these animal models to answer some of these questions, the complexity of model development became really interesting to me and something I felt I was good at and something I felt I could really do.

“It was a nice mix for me. I love to be able to not only do hands-on surgery, but to do some of the background work to understand these models, to understand disease states, and put all those together.”

I like to do some hands-on stuff. At the end of the day, I like to have a product in my hands, if you will, to show that I accomplished something today rather than having written a paragraph for a grant. To have those things come together was really great. Then, as I created more and more animal models, it turned out what I really like to do is know something about everything, not necessarily a lot about any one thing but something about anything. Developing animal models and having this physical skill, this surgical skill, was really fun for me.

“Every day was a little bit different, … a little bit new. There was a new challenge both physically and mentally for me. That was really important. That really drove my interest. It made my days go fast. That’s what I do now as the director of the cardiovascular physiology core [facility].”

Sometimes I’m doing microssurgeries on mice and rats, and sometimes we’re doing surgeries on larger animals and pigs. We might be doing anything from these really complicated open chest surgeries to catheter-based procedures in the larger animals. Some require really fine motor skill, some not so much. Then other days, you’re studying these models, you’re collecting data, you’re writing grants, managing people, managing budgets. All those things are in the day-to-day schedule. I might do all of those in a single day or over the course of a week. No day is the same here ever, and that’s really interesting for me.

Sometimes I wish I knew a little bit more depth or a lot more depth of a single topic, but over the years, I’ve become a generalist. I know a lot about a little in some cases. We do so many different disease models, mostly cardiovascular stuff. I have some basic knowledge about different imaging modalities and how to use those and what can be applied. Now it’s really fun because people come to me when they need an animal model. They’re not necessarily physiologists, but they’re coming from, say, nutrition or even biomedical engineering, and they have a device that needs to be tested but no idea of what to do next. Because I’ve seen such a wide range of things now, it’s really easy for me to design experiments to be able to help them in any number of different ways, from the initial proof of concept through to investigational new device filings with the FDA.

It’s exciting because there’s always going to be something new. My curiosity is how this works, how we can make it better. It feels like we could do anything here, and there’s always a new challenge to solve a new problem. It’s not mundane. It’s like traveling, I think. You’re looking around the bend in the road and seeing what’s there. It could be something really awesome.

“Definitely, I never have any trouble getting up in the morning to come to work.”

Can you tell us about your second career as a champion cross-country runner?

This is always fun because it’s my double secret life. I come to work as a scientist and hardly anybody knows that I was a championship athlete. I’m a several-time national champion and I raced on the world level. I hesitate to call myself world-class, but certainly, I was ranked in the top 20 in the world several times during my running career. That’s what distracted me from school.

In high school, my older brothers were runners and they’re successful. I’m a sports junkie, but not of the size to be able to play basketball or football or baseball, and truthfully not coordinated enough to do any of those as well. Running was a natural thing. When I started running, I found that I loved the journey as much as the results, so it was never hard to train daily like a runner has to do.

“It’s pretty intense. At least energy-wise, the beautiful part about running is you can only run so many hours a day, so you have a lot of other time to sit around and think about things, which is a nice marriage with science.”

You’re exhausted, which was good for me because it dampened the rest of my brain down and I could actually sit down and concentrate and things like that. As I became a good runner, my focus shifted toward running. I really wanted to understand not so much how good I was among everybody else, but rather my limits. That’s what I was really interested in, and that started to actually drive my science a little bit.

Like I mentioned before, when I hit upon the biochemistry course in university, I started to understand, “Okay. There are limits to performance somewhere in here, and if I can decode some of that, it would help me become somewhat of a better runner, or at least give me a small edge against my competition.” I ended up going to graduate school not so much because I wanted to go to graduate school, but because I really wanted to learn more about running and how to become a better performer. That’s why I went into exercise physiology.

Again, my original thought was, “I’ll get a master’s degree and I’ll start to understand that.” At that point, I had some dream of being a coach. When I started working under Bill Stanley, the encouragement was there to continue on and get this PhD, and I went away from exercise science at that point, even though my interest was really in human performance. But again, understanding that was not really going to pay the bills. I was still able to dabble in it and understand enough about metabolism and cardiac performance to really help my training to some degree.

I think the bottom line is that coaches know what to do, they just don’t know why because they’ve been doing this trial and error forever. As a scientist, I started to understand the whys, and eventually I coached myself. The science helped me tweak my own coaching and helped me understand what things were and where I could push and where I couldn’t. It definitely helped my performance. All throughout my graduate studies, I was running and competing, and it was a good mix.

“I think I drove some of my advisors nuts because I was gone all summer racing and then I had to come back in the fall ready to do some science again. … It worked really well for me to mix them both, and it was really fun.”

When science was going well, sometimes running wasn’t. When running was going well, sometimes science wasn’t. It kept me happy, kept me excited, kept me going. My whole family is runners. All my brothers are runners. Most of them ran for a division one school. Now, my kids are also runners. I have four kids, and all four of them have run at division one universities here. I have two at the university now.

One is a super senior. He was just fourth in the NCAA indoor track meet. He’s a mini-me basically, looks a lot like me, and he’s had really similar success. In fact, he’s beaten some of my records now. It’s unbelievable to watch. Again, to be an all-American here and fourth in the country for college kids is amazing. My daughter is a regular senior and she had a terrific year as well. She’s running quite terrifically too, so it’s fun to watch. Both are biology majors. Olin, who just was fourth at the NCAA meet, is actually in exercise physiology and is getting his master’s degree.

“Somehow [my kids] like me well enough that I still have some influence over them, and they keep doing those things that bring back really good memories for me, really strong memories.”

I know what they’re going for. It makes me feel a bit blessed because I realize how lucky I was in a lot of ways, how things come together in the right ways to propel you forward and make a career out of that. It truly is lucky. You’re in the right place at the right time and things happen.

Did you accidentally push your kids toward science or was that a natural thing?

No, I didn’t at all. I think it was a really natural thing and there was probably a strong genetic component. As soon as Olin could walk, he ran and he ran everywhere. You could just see that there was pure joy in that for him. It was never a chore, and that’s the way he is now. I think that’s the way it was for me too. The results were important to me and I hated losing and I loved winning. He’s very similar and super competitive, but the journey was as much as anything. It’s just fun to be able to do that.

I think Olin said when he was in the fourth grade, he already had a goal of breaking four minutes in the mile. At that point, the first father-son duo in the world had broken four minutes in the mile. I saw that and I just mentioned it offhand, probably at the dinner table, and that became a goal. He actually did that last year. We’re the 14th father-son duo in the world to ever break four minutes. We’re pretty happy about that.

I think my kids just share that natural wonder, and some of it is just things we did. My daughter would love to go on these spring phenology walks. We’d walk around the yard as it got nice, see what things were popping up, and look at the changes and the wonder of nature. We love to camp and travel. I hopefully inspired them, but they could do what they wanted. The older two are in the physical sciences. I think more like me, they would be constantly breaking stuff, taking it apart, I should say, as kids. I’d go down in the basement and the tools would be scattered everywhere, and I’m sure that’s what I did, driving my dad nuts.

“Things would be taken apart with the hopes of getting it back together and understanding how it worked, and it didn’t.”

One’s a machinist and a model maker for companies. The other is an electrical engineer and is doing computer programming. You can really see what their passions are as young kids, and you just steer them to that. I usually would ask, “Well, what about this? Have you considered this?” There were no demands like, “You should do this,” but just the questions.

My two older kids love to build things, love to take things apart. For them, it’s the same thing. Their jobs are like that, where they’re always doing something different every day. They’re trying to solve a new little issue that comes up. My son, who’s a machinist, tries to make models of the things that companies eventually want to build. People come to him and ask, “How can we do this? What’s the best way to do it?” It’s really a wide range of different projects. I think my whole family is like that, where just new is good. We don’t want to be doing the same thing every single day.

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