Growing Up In Science: Krikor Dikranian (WashU Neuroscience)

December 14, 2022
4:00 pm - 5:00 pm
McDonnell Sciences 928 (Medical Campus)

NOTE date, location

Growing Up In Science is a global series dedicated to sharing the personal narratives of scientists, with a focus on the hidden challenges of becoming and being a scientist throughout all stages of one’s career. We’ll feature scientists at WashU via in-person talks at 4pm in McDonnell 928, typically on the first Thursday of the month.

Full schedule, Growing Up In Science

If you have questions or are interested in getting involved, please contact Julia Pai.

Official Story

Krikor Dikranian got his MD degree from the Medical University in Varna, Bulgaria and a PhD from Medical Academy Sofia, Bulgaria (vascular biology).  He did his postgraduate work in the Royal Postgraduate Medical School in London with Prof. Julia Polak and in University College London with Prof. J. Geoffrey Burnstock. After a short practice as a family physician, he began his faculty career in his Alma Mater – in the Department of Anatomy and Histology. There he taught medical and dental students and did research on various aspects of endothelial cell and vascular biology including phenotypic changes in pulmonary microvessels the after hyperoxic lung injury – an international collaboration project with the Department of Anesthesiology, Harvard Medical School.

He then moved to the Department of Psychiatry, Washington University in St. Louis where his work was focused on the neurotoxicity in the developing mammalian brain including the effect of commonly used anesthetic drugs, fetal alcohol syndrome as well as on the pathology of mechanical trauma to the infant brain in rodents.  With his collaborators, he described in very fine detail the morphology of the apoptotic neuronal cell degeneration process in the developing mammalian brain. After a short stay in the Department of Psychiatry, he accepted a teaching position at the Department of Anatomy and Neurobiology (currently Department of Neuroscience) where he teaches Gross Anatomy, Histology and Neuroscience to medical and graduate students. He continues his scientific carrier by collaborating with various departments at Washington University including the Departments of Psychiatry, Biomedical Engineering, Cell Biology and Physiology, Neurology and Neuroscience as well with investigators outside the university. While his basic interests are now in medical pedagogy, he continues to consult investigators from different departments on the microscopical and pathological morphology in various tissues and organs.

Unofficial Story

My interest in medicine was fostered by my biology teacher in high school in a small city along the river Danube. I was accepted at Varna Medical University and spent six years preparing for medical practice. After graduation, the government sent me to an underdeveloped region of the country where I served the community as a family physician taking care of patients – from newborns to adults. This I did without a postgraduate training like residency. In addition, as the head of a small polyclinic, I had to manage a group of health professionals (a nurse, a midwife, two medical technicians, a dentist), took care of the pharmacy, managed immunizations as well as other basic epidemiology work such as collecting water samples for coli bacteria. I also played in the local soccer team and was the physician on call during games. Although this was the most stressful period of my life professionally, I learned a lot, including the unknown to me fact that pneumonia in the pig sounds strikingly similar to that of the human condition. This latest episode occurred when I was summoned by a local farmer to examine his distressed animal as the veterinarian was on vacation that week. I put my stethoscope on the chest wall and realized (to my surprise) that the pig had a pneumonia.  In the end I was able to cure the poor animal with the right amount of antibiotic. 

My application for a residency was denied, I was told that my services were needed in the region and I should wait for several years. As a former TA in Anatomy, the then head of Anatomy, Prof. Vankov encouraged me to apply for a position of Assistant Professor at his department. Accepting an academic teaching position seemed a good solution out of my current situation. I was assured that in a couple of years, after solidly learning the secrets of anatomy, I could transfer to a surgical department in the same university and do my fellowship there.  I successfully completed the entrance exam and started my carrier at the Medical University. This is where my scientific journey started and left me forever in its orbit, I suddenly realized that science is another universe that I wanted to explore. So, I never transferred to a clinical department except serving for 7 summers as a small-clinic physician during my two months of vacation time each year.  

Following the department’s interest in blood vessels, for my PhD degree thesis, the leadership decided that I needed to study gut mucosal vasculature during development and following treatment with vasoactive agents. However, after a year of collecting tissues and analyzing experimental data I soon realized that with the very limited funding my dissertation project will not be what I envisioned. Therefore, I actively searched to join a research group outside the country for the chance to refocus the direction my research and apply new methodologies that I did not have access to in my country. I received a fellowship from the European Science Foundation and a stipend from the Caloust Gulbenkian Foundation and completed a postgraduate fellowship in Prof. Julia Polak’s lab where in additional of doing research in her group I learned many new techniques. The immunogold staining was a new way to interrogate tissues at the ultrastructural level. This fellowship lead to two other ones, this time at the University College London with the legendary Prof. Burnstock, the person who introduced the concept of purinergic neurotransmission.  He was an amazing mentor. In his lab I specifically studied the innervation of the mucosal microvasculature and the localization of the recently discovered vasoactive substances nitric oxide and endothelin. These fellowships helped me refocus and able to complete my dissertation thesis, which I defended in the capital of the country where all dissertations were defended under the existing law. The experience that I gained helped me understand how modern research is conceived, planned and executed with the appropriate funding and with very, very hard work. I also understood that in science there is no “wishful thinking” to cite my other mentor Prof. Julia Polak, and that the many control experiments are not a waste of time.

After receiving my PhD degree, I continued to teach and do research but at the same time I was actively searching for research funding during a very difficult time in Eastern Europe following the fall of the Berlin wall. I discussed my research ideas with Dr. Ken Maynard, a friend I made during my fellowships at UCL. Ken is now a Director, Global Program Team Effectiveness at Takeda Development Center Americas, Inc. Soon I was exchanging these ideas with Dr. Rosemary Jones from the Department of Anesthesia at Harvard Medical School. She invited me to Boston and a month later a collaboration grant proposal was submitted to NIH. After some recommended corrections, a year later we received a high score and a Fogarty International Research Collaboration Award (FIRCA) and funding to study the effects of hyperoxic lung injury on mouse pulmonary microvessels. 

Several years later I was invited to join the Department of Psychiatry (the laboratory of Dr. John Olney) for one year to study the ultrastructure of the human brain in Alzheimer’s disease. They needed an experienced electron microscopist for this project. After arriving with my family I found that this project will not materialize so they had to refocus my studies on other scientific problems. In Dr. Olney’s lab I studied the effects of various neurotoxic drugs. Here, now a Research associate I realized after some time that I needed to refocus my carrier again and return to teaching, my other passion. After several years doing research in the lab and part-time teaching gross anatomy at various departments and programs at WASHU, I was invited to join the department of Anatomy and Neurobiology as an Instructor where my official teaching carrier was resurrected. Now that this was my official job description, I still wanted to continue doing research as I did not want to abandon this part of my professional life. Over 20 some years I collaborated with many investigators inside and outside the university and published papers with them. No matter the “double” amount of time devoted to both “jobs” I was happy that I am contributing to my fullest potentials. I still enjoy doing both immensely. You may ask my collaborators.