"You know, the best way to collect stuff is to put on rubber boots and go out and get it," says Nobel Prize-winning biochemist Baruch S. Blumberg.
Blumberg has studied infectious agents in the high bush country of Surinam, worked crowded patient wards at New York's Bellevue Hospital and collected blood specimens in Nigeria. His penchant for getting out of the lab and into the real world helped earn him the 1976 Nobel Prize for his discovery of the hepatitis B virus and its far-reaching impact on public health around the globe. Now, at age 75, it has led him to NASA and field studies that stretch from extreme environments below the Earth's surface to Mars, Jupiter's moon Europa and beyond.
In mid-September, Blumberg will take over as head of NASA's fledgling Astrobiology Institute, a public-private partnership that has its headquarters at the space agency's Ames Research Center in California's Silicon Valley. Instead of fighting disease, Blumberg and his team will address some of the most fundamental questions of basic research. The institute brings together experts in astronomy, molecular biology, genomics, geology, ecology, paleontology, physics, chemistry and zoology to work across traditional boundaries on a mission to understand nothing less than the fundamental processes of life--not only on Earth but wherever it may exist in the universe.
"I've always liked field work, because it confronts you with the problems," Blumberg said. By getting out of the lab and collecting the data yourself, "you actually pick up things that have an influence on how you think about them, and you really can't articulate it . . . but it informs what you do."
And astrobiology, he noted, "is very strong on field work."
Institute scientists hope to simulate the metabolic processes of a cell; search for the complex chain of interactions that may determine how life originates; and develop simulation chambers that model the conditions of early Earth, present-day Mars, the moons of the outer planets and even predicted planets around other stars, said NASA administrator Daniel Goldin when announcing Blumberg's appointment last May. Goldin called astrobiology "the cornerstone to NASA's mission in the new millennium."
Blumberg, like Goldin, emphasized that the institute's success will not depend on the discovery of life on other planets. "Its mission will be successful if we discover these natural phenomena, this very important issue about origins of life. . . . It's just great to be involved with these kinds of questions."
Blumberg grew up in New York City in an intellectual environment. In addition to a rigorous secular education, he also learned the Old Testament in its original Hebrew and was "immersed in the existential reasoning of the Talmud."
He joined the Navy in 1943, served as commanding officer of a landing ship and later briefly traveled as a merchant seaman. "Sea experience placed a great emphasis on detailed problem solving, on extensive planning before action and on the arrangement of alternate methods to effect an end," he once said, noting that the same techniques are particularly effective for a researcher executing field studies.
After receiving a medical degree from Columbia, he served as an intern and assistant resident at the famous Bellevue Hospital at a time when the wards were overcrowded, reminding him of accounts of 18th-century London. He received a doctorate in biochemistry from Oxford University.
In a series of field trips to West Africa, Blumberg began the studies that led to the discovery of the long-sought hepatitis B virus, now thought to cause 80 percent of liver cancers as well as many cases of cirrhosis. He pursued that research at the National Institutes of Health between 1957 and 1964 before moving to the Institute for Cancer Research. Blumberg is senior adviser to the president of the Fox Chase Cancer Center in Philadelphia, an affiliation he said he will continue on a greatly reduced basis.
Blumberg enjoys walking, canoeing and working at his farm in western Maryland. He once observed that "shoveling manure for a day is an excellent counterbalance to intellectual work."
Baruch S. Blumberg
New title: Director, NASA Institute of Astrobiology
Education: B.S. (physics), Union College, Schenectady, N.Y.; medical degree, Columbia University's College of Physicians and Surgeons; intern and assistant resident, New York City's Bellevue Hospital; clinical fellowship, Columbia Presbyterian Medical Center; Ph.D. in biochemistry, Oxford University, England (Balliol College).
Family: Wife, Jean, two daughters and two sons.
Career highlights: World War II service in the Navy; field studies in West Africa resulting in discovery of hepatitis B virus, with major global health benefits; National Institutes of Health; Institute for Cancer Research; Fox Chase Cancer Center in Philadelphia (an affiliation that continues today); professor of medicine and anthropology at University of Pennsylvania; Member of Balliol College at England's Oxford University; numerous awards and honors, including 1976 Nobel Prize in medicine.
Hobbies: Long-distance hiking, canoeing and cattle-raising.
On taking a break: "Shoveling manure for a day is an excellent counterbalance to intellectual work."