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Dr. Brian R. Shmaefsky

Dr. Shmaefsky grew up in a housing project near a notoriously dangerous section of Coney Island (in Brooklyn, N.Y.) where "surviving to graduate high school was my primary goal and going to college was the last thing on my mind". Many of his friends ended up in Vietnam or became manual laborers. He says, "On the advice of a high school counselor I went to train as a radiographic technician. I was not considered college material." He worked for one year in a downtown Brooklyn hospital dubbed "The City Morgue". Unfortunately for them, the science of taking X-rays interested him more than the actual work and he left to obtain a biology degree at Brooklyn College.

His father and mother encouraged education and his father's interest in science and nature fostered in him the desire to pursue his studies in biology. However, "With three languages being spoken around the house it was difficult to speak and write comprehensibly [in English]". After battling to overcome poor English and writing skills he won several scholarships and undergraduate awards. The accolades he received as an undergraduate encouraged him to obtain a Masters degree in biology from Southern Illinois University, to do doctoral studies on plant biochemistry at the University of Illinois, and on ecology and limnology at the Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory in Colorado.

From 1982-85 Dr. Shmaefsky worked at Sigma Biochemical in St. Louis, Missouri. His knowledge of environmental affects on cell physiology was valuable in industry, where he investigated commercially important biochemicals extractable from animals and plants. Extracting large amounts of biochemicals [from plants] is not just a mechanical task. Some biochemicals will degrade or be produced in quantities too small to be of value if the tissues are not handled with care. For example, the extraction processes for removing biochemicals from cytoplasm are different from the methods used to isolate biochemicals from the cell membrane or organelles. While he was at Sigma, academia beckoned and Dr. Shmaefsky taught nights and weekends at Southern Illinois University and McKendree College. His interest in teaching grew, prompting him to pursue a Ph.D. in higher education from Southern Illinois University. An offer to work as a visiting instructor was the impetus to leave industry and to teach full time, and while he experienced a substantial pay cut, he feels that his enjoyment of teaching is well worth it. He became Chair of Biology at Northwestern Oklahoma State University, Director of the region's Resource Awareness Program and a consultant in natural resource conservation. It is here that his interest in bioremediation developed (at the time he was investigating the feasibility of harnassing plant and microorganism biochemistry to remove soil and water pollutants, since from his undergraduate research on salt marsh reeds he knew that fast-growing aquatic plants were capable of removing large amounts of agricultural nutrients and metals from the environment).

Dr. Shmaefsky went on to Kingwood College (Texas) to direct and develop its Biotechnology Program. His contacts with Houston biotechnology industries led to opportunities for consulting in bioremediation even though he had no formal training in the area. Much of what he needed to know was gleaned from the scientific literature and from working on projects in the field. He now consults on petroleum cleanup and reclamation projects in South America and elsewhere. His interest in bioremediation is not as a researcher [pure science]. Rather, he is a user of the technology [applied science]. He evaluates the successful transition of laboratory research findings to applications under "real" conditions. He says, "Ideas can look great in the lab. But, in many instances they lose that potential when tried in nature. Bioremediation is replete with such successes and failures."

Dr. Schmaefsky's publications focus on science teaching and the philosophy of science and he is active in NABT, NSTA, the Society of College Science Teaching, and other professional organizations. He is one of a dozen field-test teachers for the BSCS module: "The Human Genome Project: Biology, Computers, and Privacy". He serves several industrial trade journals associated with biotechnology and environmental sciences, and contributes to efforts to ensure environmentally friendly development in the greater Houston area. He recently provided comment on the US/Canadian Joint Air Quality Agreement.

Science continues to be a focus in his life, which he attributes in part to his father's Russian upbringing: "Russians are instilled with a scientific view of interpreting the world and the meaning of life." His hobbies are writing about science and teaching children and the public to appreciate science and nature. He recognizes that his current position results directly from "pure perseverance for a quality education that allowed me to escape the failure-ridden environment in which I grew up. Many of the kids I knew as a child are in jail or dead. I appreciate the teachers who recognized my talents and encouraged me to succeed." Dr. Shmaefsky believes everyone has the ability to contribute lasting positive changes to society. He requires all his students to find ways of using what they learn in their biology classes, and to conduct community projects based on that learning.


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