Dr. Kurt Hankenson is a Professor of Orthopaedic Surgery at the University of Michigan Medical School. He received his Doctor of Veterinary Medicine degree from the University of Illinois. Afterwards, Kurt practiced equine veterinary medicine for a few years before returning to graduate school for his MS in Basic Medical Sciences from the Purdue University School of Veterinary Medicine. Kurt went on to earn his PhD in Biochemistry from the University of Washington, and he remained at the University of Washington to conduct postdoctoral research before accepting a faculty position at the University of Michigan. Kurt then served on the faculty at the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine for 8 years, and there he held the inaugural Dean W. Richardson Chair for Equine Research. Kurt worked briefly as a faculty member at Michigan State University before returning to the University of Michigan last year. Over the course of his career, Kurt has been awarded numerous honors including the Young Investigator Award, a John Haddad Fellowship, and also the Fuller Albright Award, all from the American Society for Bone and Mineral Research. In our interview, Kurt shared some of his experiences in life and science.
People Behind the Science Podcast Show Notes
Life Outside of Science (2:47)
Outside of research, Kurt enjoys running, spending time with his wife and son, eating good food, drinking West Coast IPAs, traveling, listening to music, and reading.
The Scientific Side (6:12)
Kurt is a veterinarian and a scientist. His research focuses on developing new treatments to improve bone healing as well as to treat bone loss conditions like osteoporosis.
A Dose of Motivation (7:51)
“The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.” – Martin Luther King, Jr.
What Got You Hooked on Science? (10:59)
As early as elementary school, Kurt was fascinated by nature and animals. He had numerous pets in the house growing up, and this interest in animals led him to decide very early on that he wanted to be a veterinarian. In vet school, Kurt’s interests in musculoskeletal diseases and orthopaedics led him to study horses and equine medicine. After finishing vet school, Kurt worked as a veterinarian for about two years before deciding to return to graduate school. The desire to address some of the diagnostic limitations and unknowns he often experienced in practice led him to ultimately pursue a career in research.
The Low Points: Failures and Challenges (22:44)
Some of the biggest challenges in Kurt’s work have not been directly related to the research itself. Things like personnel management, lab management, finance management, navigating the academic environment, and working through the process of being promoted are important aspects of academic scientists’ careers that aren’t explicitly taught during graduate school or postdoctoral fellowships. Kurt still struggles sometimes with issues related to hiring the right people and how best to motivate and manage them so they can be most successful. Having a spouse in a related field, as well as great colleagues, has helped a lot.
A Shining Success! (26:32)
For Kurt, some of the most rewarding moments have been watching his trainees achieve success. For example, all of the undergraduate students working in Kurt’s lab presented their research in posters during an undergraduate research forum earlier this year. Some of his students received awards for their exceptional research and presentations, and some students were awarded additional funding to support their research through the summer. In addition, a postdoctoral fellow in Kurt’s lab recently received a travel fellowship from the Orthopedic Research Society that allowed him to learn new techniques at the University of Southern California. Getting large grants and publishing papers are also exciting, but Kurt finds that successes that involve having an impact on future generations of scientists are the most meaningful to him.
Book Recommendations (4:06)
Books by Michael Chabon, One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez, Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel García Márquez, Moo by Jane Smiley, Straight Man by Richard Russo
Most Treasured Travel (29:16)
Kurt has had many opportunities to travel to fantastic places for science. In 2016, he visited Xi’an, China, and it was great to see the Terracotta Soldiers and learn about Chinese history. Another one of Kurt’s favorite scientific travel destinations has been Davos, Switzerland. He has been there multiple times to visit the AO Research Institute, and the trips are always a wonderful time. In the U.S., Kurt enjoyed visiting New Orleans for the Orthopaedic Research Society meeting this past March, and the trip was particularly memorable because the city was celebrating its 300th anniversary.
Quirky Traditions and Funny Memories (32:54)
One of the PhD students in Kurt’s lab is pretty into social media, and he started a phenomenal tradition where lab members can #TweetTheTib. This student took an orthopaedic model of a tibia bone, painted it gold, and wrote #TweetTheTib on it. Now, they take it with them whenever they travel, and people can get selfies and pictures with this model tibia. It’s been a lot of fun. When the student brought the tibia to the Orthopaedic Research Society Meeting, everyone there wanted a picture with the tibia. Not only has it been entertaining, but it is also helping to bring their lab and research into the spotlight.
Advice For Us All (37:10)
Surround yourself with people who are smarter than you and who can compensate for your deficiencies. You also need to have fun and laugh as much as possible. Enjoy life and enjoy learning new things. Find an awesome partner and people who will be there to support you. Remember that being a scientist is an amazing job, and it is wonderful that the public and the government provide support to allow scientists to have such great jobs.
Kurt’s research is focused on studying the cellular and molecular mechanisms of bone formation and then using this information, developing new therapies for regeneration of bone injuries or for restoring lost bone in osteoporosis. In his free-time, Kurt spends all the time that he can with his wife and son and their pets. He is an avid runner and cyclist, and he is passionate about good food, music, and travel.