Grad student on fast track in physiology

Everything just seems to happen faster for Chris Banek.

He was a dedicated researcher before he'd finished his undergraduate studies at the University of Minnesota-Duluth. At 22, he was the senior graduate student in a human physiology laboratory at the University of Oregon. By 23, he had co-authored 10 peer-reviewed scientific journal articles and a book chapter on sex differences in the developmental programming of adult disease.

Now a Ph.D. student in human physiology, Banek still has to complete his dissertation work in UO assistant professor Jeff Gilbert's lab – but universities have already started recruiting him for postdoctoral programs. At this pace, he could have his first faculty appointment in a medical school before he's 30.

“I've always loved science,” Banek said. “While working with Dr. Gilbert, he’s given me plenty of valuable learning opportunities, such as lab start-up design and grant-writing experience.”

Banek studies heart and kidney health and complications in pregnancy. In 2012 alone, he won the American Physiological Society Water and Electrolyte Homeostasis Pre-Doctoral Research Recognition Award; the Society for Experimental Biology and Medicine Young Investigator Award; and the Council for High Blood Pressure Research New Investigator Travel Award for Trainees. He was also recently selected to serve a three-year term as the trainee representative to the American Physiological Society, during which he will represent undergraduate, graduate and post-doctoral trainees and advocate for professional development opportunities for all levels of trainees within the society.

Banek's passion for science surfaced early; he still remembers his first childhood chemistry kit and the “little fires” he started that got him in trouble with his parents. He grew up in Minnesota, so he did what Minnesotans do – played hockey year-round, distinguishing himself as an athlete.

While at UM-D, Banek was introduced to Gilbert, then an assistant professor in the University of Minnesota Medical School.

Banek's focus at the time was biochemistry and biophysics, but working with Gilbert on high blood pressure complications related to pregnancy convinced him that his true love is physiology. Together, the two laid the initial groundwork for a study published recently in Hypertension, a journal of the American Heart Association, in which they found exercise could be beneficial in alleviating hypertension during pregnancy.

Banek’s expertise is such that Gilbert even allowed him to assist in setting up his lab at the UO.

“Chris knows his way around a laboratory, is very self-sufficient and self-motivated and he takes responsibility for his work,” Gilbert said. “I feel Chris found that setting up the lab was an important learning experience and will help him in the long run with his career.”

-- story and photo by communications specialist Matt Cooper, UO media relations