• Podcast
  • Dec 04 2018

'Behind the Blue': UK’s Don Frazier Stays Forever Young Through Science Outreach, Research

If staying engaged in something you love is the key to staying young, University of Kentucky emeritus faculty member Don Frazier certainly is on the right track.

At an age when many folks are sitting back and taking it easy, Frazier still shows up on campus several days a week to impart knowledge and wisdom to young students, and to mentor up-and-coming faculty members. And he still is earning research funding from the National Institutes of Health (NIH).

On this week’s episode of “Behind the Blue,” UKPR‘s Carl Nathe talks with Frazier about his passion for science and research, and for sharing that love with others.

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From the campus of the University of Kentucky, you're listening to Behind the Blue. 

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Kody Kiser: If staying engaged in something you love is the key to staying young, University of Kentucky emeritus faculty member Don Frazier certainly is on the right track. At an age when many folks are sitting back and taking it easy, Frazier still shows up on campus several days a week to impart knowledge and wisdom to young students, and to mentor up-and-coming faculty members. And he still is earning research funding from the National Institutes of Health.

I'm Kody Kiser with UK PR and Marketing. On this week’s episode of “Behind the Blue,” UKPR‘s Carl Nathe talks with Frazier about his passion for science and research, and for sharing that love with others.


Carl Nathe: Joining us this week on the Behind the Blue podcast, we have the pleasure of having Dr. Don Frazier. And, amongst other thing, Dr. Frazier has been the long-time director of the Science Outreach Center at the University of Kentucky. But Don, I want to back up just a moment, because you are an example of somebody who has enjoyed their life in academics, made the most of it, and here you are, dare I say, 83 years young. You've just become a part of two new research grants. One is going for five years, and that's from the NIH directed toward the Science Outreach Center. We'll talk more about that in a moment. And also, along with Nathan Vanderford and Dr. Mark Evers, the Markey Cancer Center, you are a part of the ACTION Program. That's the Appalachian Career Training in Oncology program. The ACTION Program, in total, five years and a total of about a million dollars a year through these grants. So you're going to be 87 years young, close to 88, at the time these grants are going out of style. So that's pretty darn good for somebody who is - I guess officially Professor Emeritus - but the Emeritus part, you're very, very active. First of all, welcome to the podcast on. 

Don Frazier: Glad to be here. 

Carl Nathe: You first set foot at UK 1953. 

Don Frazier: Yes. That is absolutely correct. 

Carl Nathe: And, you had the dream, in fact you thought, you came here and you at least got to practice, on the UK basketball team. So, you were going to be part of Adolf Rupp's crew. And, I guess, he was one of the first guys to maybe suggest a career change. 

Don Frazier: Well, I think indirectly, that's absolutely correct. Playing time and what we were doing. And, of course, he had so many highly talented players at that point in time. Actually, five classes worth, because in 1952 they sat out a year. They couldn't play. We had graduate students, we had seniors, and all the way down to us freshman. Therefore, freshman class that year did not actually participate with varsity. We could have, but they chose not to use freshman as varsity. 

Carl Nathe: Where did you grow up? 

Don Frazier: I grew up in Martin, Kentucky in Floyd County. And it's in the heart of Appalachia. And, of course, basketball was the major sport. We- We didn't have enough players to play football, so. Actually at that point in time is what sort of convinced me that basketball would be my best bet if I'm going to go play sports. I was actually recruited by Peck Hickman also at Louisville, and I was going to go to Louisville, because at that point in time, it was the only medical school. And I grew up in a medical family, and therefore, I was supposed to go back to the mountains and actually practice. I - the lure of University of Louisville at that time in basketball and Kentucky - I preferred trying my lot at Kentucky. Now, I may have played more if I had stayed at Louisville. Who knows? But I don't know. 

Carl Nathe: You get your undergraduate degree, and then, what follows after that? 

Don Frazier: I actually applied to medical - as a junior - and low and behold, was admitted. Through the experience in medical school, I got involved with Neuro - Neuroscience. Got some grants from NIH as a student, and that just pulled me into the academic, particularly the research component of it. 

Carl Nathe: So much so that Don Frazier elected to earn a Ph.D. instead of a medical degree at the University of Louisville. His research has been continuously funded by the National Institutes of Health since the mid-1960s. 

Don Frazier: Well, actually I was recruited out- the University of New Mexico. And Albuquerque was getting ready to open up a new medical school there. I was actually one of the founding faculty members as it turned out. And at that point and time, I was so young, I could not call myself a founder. But now I'm part of the founder celebration for the medical school out there, as the seventh or eight faculty member hired. It was as a great experience. I spent almost five years there, and then came back by way of Boston to go to Woods Hole, because I was in a research area that I needed to actually go to the marine biological labs. I needed the squid. There's very few squid in the desert. There's very few squid in Lexington. So, I went up to Boston and worked for a number of years on using squid as my animal of research. I did a lot of work with how local anesthetics work, a lot of pharmaceutical work on nerve membranes. 

Carl Nathe: Woods Hole, that's Cape Cod, up in the Boston area. So, why squid? Why do they have the properties that you needed? 

Don Frazier: The squid. The giant squid, has an axon, or a nerve fiber, which is about like a soda straw. Now, in us, in us humans, our individual fibers are about 20 microns. You can't see it with a naked eye. Now imagine now, you have an experimental model that has to work in the squid, because if it's threatened, it has to squash it's little mantel and go flying across - that's it's only escape. And it squirts out some black ink. So it has to work, or it's gone. So, the giant axon in the squid is for- Four or five nobel prizes had been won because it's accessibility to actually study effects by putting things inside as well as outside. So it's an incredible thing. If you look through the history of neuroscience, the squid - and in some points, which I preferred in Woods Hole, was the Lobster. Because, obviously it had a nutritional advantage as well than the squid did. But... If you look historically, the squid axon is huge and what we know about how the nervous system works. 

Carl Nathe: Your life starts in the hills of Eastern Kentucky, then you get educated at the University of Kentucky in Lexington. You're out in the deserts of New Mexico, the high desert. Then you're in Cape Cod in the ocean. And what draws you back to Kentucky and when was it you came back to the University of Kentucky? 

Don Frazier: Well I came back in '67 and, of course, once a Kentuckian, you're always a Kentuckian. Once from the mountains, you're from the mountains. And of course, it's essentially coming home. A lot of it always has to do with your family. Coming back, it was nice to go other areas and challenge yourself. That you can survive. For an environment like in Woods Hole, I was routinely in contact with at least four Nobel Laureates. And I'm sitting here saying, for a kid from Eastern Kentucky, I'm sitting here, and I can listen to you talk? I mean, that is an incredible opportunity. But I wanted to come back to Kentucky, actually because it's essentially coming home. 

Carl Nathe: So then you come back. You are, at that point, you're teaching, doing research...

Don Frazier: Coming back initially was pretty much medical students and undergraduates. Because our department was not only the medical students we taught. We had graduate students and also undergraduates. Because, when the medical school was formed, the campus departments, like anatomy and physiology, were moved in to the medical school. So those students that were being served by the campus, needed to be - continued to be served. So, some of these course were- and still- taught in the medical center. 

Carl Nathe: One of the things that you're best known for. You've had a long career as a full-time faculty member. You got involved and founded this Science Outreach Center, which you're still active in and still earning grants for. Tell us, where did that idea come from and how'd you get started? 

Don Frazier: I was chair of the department in the College of Medicine, and people like Carl Nathe and others in Public Relations at the University of Kentucky would get calls from all over the state of Kentucky for teachers who wanted to bring their class to UK for a field trip. And guess who they would call? They would call me, from a standpoint, because we had a lot of equipment because we're teaching medical students that we could entertain these kids. That's how it got started. It was pretty much, for the PR people and the public relations people that kept looking for somebody to actually help enhance people appreciation for UK. Which it certainly did. It's an incredible recruiting tool. 

So it started simply like that, and then suddenly I said, it's very difficult to do this for these people, because all the classrooms that we had, we were teaching medical and dental students. And we had to fit in any group coming from Paducah or Prestonburg or wherever. We had to find time to actually allow them to come. So the idea came in my head in 1980 essentially, it would be nice if we had an outreach center, and had our own space, which I could control. And therefore we wouldn't teach classes in it, we would bring kids in and for people coming to visit UK. They could come and we could entertain them, and actually be campus wide. Which includes Ag. I love the Arboretum, because they've been big in what we do in the Outreach Center. 

So, basically it blew up from a simple start of doing and it wrote my first grant in 1980 for bringing kids in and we started this minority program for bringing kids into that hadn't had the opportunity to witness such an environment. To bring them into UK. 

Carl Nathe: In desperate need of space to house his new Center for Science and Health Career Opportunities, Frazier was able to convince UK administrators not to tear down an old building near University Drive. With some renovations and outfitting, the Center, now named in Frazier's honor, was opened. 

Don Frazier: It's still standing. It's still there. And we're still entertaining kids in there, and having that has been incredible. Because we have space, we have an interactive classroom. We can do all this stuff. And teachers can call, and we can control it, and I don't teach courses in there. We actually - it's there for kids coming in. 

Carl Nathe: Most people at your age, you just turned 83, most people - I know you love tennis. You've been involved with the UK tennis program. He's got a ring on his finger. But, you can't see that on the radio, but anyway - or on the podcast. What I was going to say was, a lot of guys your age would be kind of on cruise control. A little game of tennis, a little golf, a little travel, but here you are, you're supposed to be Emeritus. Emeritus has that - the connotation is that you're a professor, but you're not doing much anymore, to be honest about it. Yet here you are, and you just got two different grants. You're 83 years young. And let's talk about what this grant from the NIH means for the outreach center. Go ahead. 

Don Frazier: For the last 20 years, we've had a grant from NIH, the National Institute of General Medical Sciences. I've had a grant that was thought by NIH to be critical. And that was that what they were seeing was that very few faculty members from minority institutions were being funded. So, basically, if you look at trying to be fair with the tax payers' money, they were trying to say how can we get more minority faculty funded and have a presence in the current army of researchers? And so they posted an application process that said, anyone actually wants to get involved with this, please apply. And so we, here at UK - and we have an incredible team that we put together for this particular project - of how we could actually put together a program and ended up winning. And for 20 years what we have been doing with our people here is, inviting faculty from all of the country that actually are minority serving institutions or faculty from institutions serving a lot of minority kids would come in. 

Don Frazier: And our whole thing is to be able to give them strategies and help them be able to write competitive research proposals. These are grants for - what these people - faculty are trying to get in order to do research - bench research. And for 20 years, we've been doing that. And of course, now it's five more, but it's a different. It's a different grant process. It's a new name for that, because they really wanted to actually highlight mentoring. Which has been a strength of ours all along. It's one thing we could bring in kids and we could either - it used to be in the library for 40 of them, and now we meet maybe at the faculty club. And actually bring them in for 3 days, and we go through all the strategies for actually how do you go about writing a successful grant. How do you sustain that enthusiasm and ability to actually put together a good project? 

So, our whole process now is we're really focused on mentoring. And that is, when they go back home, and start writing, we will look at what they're writing. We'll look at their aims or abstracts and things along the way. If we don't have the strength her at UK, we'll go across the country to find willing mentors that will work with these people to help read and help them actually put together successful applications. We call it the IPERT Program. It comes out of NIH NIGMS. That institute. And it's Innovative Programs for Enhancing Research Training. Now this one, we're going to include also how do you train graduate students and undergraduate students. 

So in addition to trying to help these faculty get funded, we're also trying to improve their ability to go back to their institutions and be able to take that information they gathered from us to actually train their own faculty who don't - didn't come to our workshops, and also have they then - until it filters down to graduate students and how them mentor graduate students, and they mentor then undergraduates. It's a way in which we've gone from the faculty now back to making them essentially training the trainers. So, starting with us and our workshops, we give them or empower them with the confidence that they can go back and train not only to their own faculty, but then filter down the importance of research and things all the way through graduate and undergraduate students. 

Carl Nathe: I don't want to keep reminding you of your age, but like I said, what is it that keeps you going? Or is it the work that keeps you young? Is that - does your wife or anybody look at you and say, "Don, why don't you just take it easy?"

Don Frazier: No, she wants me out of that house. No. You come and watch sometime. I invite you to come. Every week we have posted the schools that are coming into the outreach center. And you'll understand immediately. I get so much feedback from these kids. I have as much fun as they have. If you want to stay young, you've got to stay engaged. And as long as they look at me and don't throw tomatoes or whatever, and they're willing to sit, I'm going to talk for 50 minutes. I haven't done that in 20 years. No presentation I've made at the outreach center is less than hardly two hours. They don't want to leave. So, as long as they're engaged, and they're making me feel like I'm still, what, useful. I can still make it. They're actually keeping me motivated. 

Carl Nathe: And you spoke before, and I've seen that over there, where you have actual - like you can show- We were talking about the ACTION grant, which is about cancer. Hope a part of that is kids helping parents and others to, you know, encourage them to stop smoking. And you can actually show someone what a diseased lung really looks like, because you've got that over there. 

Don Frazier: Yes. And I think this is - why do teachers- I actually, to get a hold of the teachers, you have to have a plan. I became president of the Kentucky Science Teachers Association for a while, so I could get in touch with all of the science teachers. So, why do they want to come? Well they want to come not because they want to look at plastic models, but they have kids want to come because they can hold a brain in their hand and look at it. Or hearts, or lungs, kidneys. We have also - you know, unfortunately what happens with disease. Which is not what I try to focus on. But pathology, I try to stay at only as a - not necessarily as a shock value - but let them know this is what, you know, an outcome could be. Tend to try to focus on normal, and what you need to do to stay healthy. But that pathology - seeing the smoker's lungs, which are totally destroyed by smoke, or see a cirrhotic liver, or seeing things which really, could have lasted a whole lot longer, but didn't. So we're able to motivate the kids. 

One thing I can say to all kids that come in, that I get really - you can see I'm already getting enthusiastic about - is I ask them where all their body parts came from. Now, if a child has not been asked that before, to stop and think about, they may say a higher being, or they may finally say their mom and dad, which is what I want them to say. And because what they get from their mom and dad is what, a little bit of strands of DNA from both of them. Which is microscopic. You can't see it. Now how do you motivate a kid? When they suddenly realize that those little strands of microscope DNA have all the what? All the blueprint for actually building all of them, you mean from the ground up. They suddenly get to my I've got an incredible machine. Look, I have a humble beginning coming from this. And DNA has all this power to basically not only build me, but to give each of my parts different functions. 

Suddenly, they're enamored by the human body and the human system. And they would not leave the outreach center saying I'm going to put water in the gas tank of the Porsche. They're not going to do it, because it won't run. So they understand to take this machine, which is incredibly complicated and coming from this DNA, which is just incredible. They get motivated. I get motivated because they get turned on. And so, as long as they do that, they're going to have to put up with me. 

Carl Nathe: Now, I could go on and on and ask you many, many more questions. But here's the last formal question, and then I want to give you the chance to add anything. But I want you to answer this. Okay. At your age, you're in your 80s, so obviously there's a lot of people that you've taught with and done research with at the University of Kentucky that either sadly no longer with us on the Earth, or they're retired and they've been cruising on the Yacht, or they've been paddling their canoe or playing golf or whatever. Do you ever hear from them and say, "Don when are you - " I know I've asked this three times already. But, when are you going to give it up? 

Don Frazier: When I'm forced to. And the forcing won't come from me. When I feel like I'm no longer productive, when I'm no longer able to actually influence kids, or I'm a detriment rather than an asset. I hope I'm the first one to actually understand that. I question myself all the time, and I go through - As a neuroscientist, I go through my Alzheimer's list every morning to make sure I'm still connected. But, no, until that happens, and until somebody tells me I'm doing a bad job. Or I'm being more harmful than helpful, why? Why quit? And basically I started that thing with a Director's salary of being zero. I always have that fear, if I walk away, what in the world happens. How can you recruit a replacement with no money? It doesn't pay the mortgage or it doesn't buy groceries. Maybe I did it deliberately. Maybe psychologically I had to say, I'm going to do this so it'll keep me. I'll have the excuse never to leave. They can haul me out of there, or my ashes, or whatever. But, that's probably the main thing. 

But, again, if I was going to add something to the people who might be listening, and we're talking about actually looking at grant writing and - I will say, everybody in the listening audience has been a grant writer once in their life. And you ask, well, what does Frazier do in these workshops, teaching people to write a grant? Just think about, when you ask your parents for money for the first time. You essentially were writing a grant. You had a project, and you were enthusiastic about that project. It could be spring break money, or it could be a prom... Whatever the thing was, you had a cause, and you had to be able to verbalize it, and you had to be able to say, how much do I need to ask for. You had to have a budget. It's part of grant writing. And then you had to have the next thing was where's my sponsor. Who do I go to to ask for this money? So there's mom, dad, grandparents, aunts, uncles... Who do you go to? Well, you're going to step back and look, who's the most likely to fund me? And this is what you do in grant writing. What we teach is that you try to find the most logical sponsor who would believe in what you're doing and they're more likely to fund you. And on and on. Another words, this is the kind of strategies we're talking about. You can learn to do it better. 

Carl Nathe: Well, it has been a delight, as always. You're an inspiration to talk with. And I want to thank Dr. Don Frazier, professor emeritus at UK, but still very, very, very active. A part of two different grants over the next five years. And yes, ladies and gentlemen, you heard it right, he just turned 83 years young. So thanks to Don Frazier for being our guest. And that's the Behind the Blue podcast. 

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Thank you for joining us on this edition of Behind the Blue. For more information about this episode, or any other episode, visit it us online at uky.edu/behindtheblue. You can send questions or comments via email to behindtheblue@uky.edu, or tweet your questions using #BehindtheBlue. Behind the Blue is a joint production of University of Kentucky Public Relations and Marketing and UK Healthcare. 

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