Pioneer Spotlight: Dr. Mark Levenstein

Mark Levenstein

Beginning in his grandfather’s barbershop in Canada, Dr. Mark Levenstein found some of his first scientific experiences within the science fiction stories of comic books that his grandfather had left him. This interest in science would grow as he began to explore the meanings behind how life can change and adapt.

Levenstein’s education has taken him across the country from Maryland to California. His desire to experience a variety of perspectives in our country has helped shape his ability to understand his surroundings in the context of science and his specialization of biology. He arrived at UW-Platteville in 2015 and serves as an assistant professor of molecular biology and biotechnology. He is also the director of the Master of Science in Applied Biotechnology program. These various titles influence Levenstein’s areas of scientific research and enable him to decipher the questions of life that have intrigued him since his childhood.

Exploring these questions is not something that he wishes to do alone, however. Levenstein seeks collaboration with his students on various projects in classes he teaches, such as Molecular Biology, Biotechnology, Cell Biology and Animal Tissue Culture – where he trains students to grow cells outside of animals. He also teaches core courses such as the Unity of Life, Concepts of Biology and Fundamentals of Biological Investigation. He earned his bachelor’s degree from Johns Hopkins University and Ph.D. from the University of California, San Diego.

What inspired you to pursue teaching biology?

At every point in my science career, I have always been training people. My first job was a laboratory technician in an academic lab. In that position we would have undergraduates come through the lab and I would work with them, teaching them scientific techniques. Similarly, in graduate school, we would work with new technicians or take on undergraduate students and train them. After I received my Ph.D., I had multiple younger scientists working under me. I have worked in academics and the biotechnology industry and in all my jobs, I have really enjoyed inspiring new people to see what it is like to be in a lab. When the opportunity to teach here came, that’s where I grounded myself. Interacting with people who are new to the field or those considering making a career out of it is my favorite part of working with science and biology.

What would you say is the most rewarding part of your job?

I think that being able to work every day with young people is really rewarding because of how they influence my outlook on the world. Students who transition from high school to college and are preparing for careers or an advanced degree find themselves in Platteville at a remarkable time of their lives. I gauge that by looking back at my own experiences and how fondly I recall my undergraduate years. The breadth and depth of topics you are exposed to at a university rarely happens again anywhere else. That chance to experience a catalog of elective opportunities is unique. It’s inspiring to catch students discussing things outside of their major or those things within their major that they find interesting and exciting. To be part of that is exciting; it is super rewarding.

What kind of research have you done recently that you are passionate about?

Because the BILSA administration is very supportive of independent research, I am fortunate enough to run a pretty active research group at UW-Platteville. When I came here, I brought my own area of expertise with me. I am a human embryonic stem cell biologist, and that is a field that holds a lot of promise for developing new cures for conditions that have been with people for a long time. It is amazing to think that a cell we grow in the lab can – with the right knowledge and skill – turn into any other type of cell. There are, theoretically, no limitations to what you can do with these cells. They are a really inspiring model for me to work with and to share with students. Not every student can say they did embryonic stem cell research as an undergraduate. Being able to offer them the opportunity to play with these cells and think about how much will change even by the time they graduate? That’s exciting. That feels like I have something special to give.

I have other undergraduate research projects that I am passionate about as well, most being collaborations with other departments at the university. I am the principal investigator on a NASA grant that is a collaboration with a local company here in Platteville called Photonic Cleaning Technologies which was founded by Dr. James Hamilton, a chemistry professor. Working together, we are investigating how an adhesive polymer he created can remove microbes and DNA from surfaces and become part of future space missions.

A third collaboration is with the Engineering school and Dr. Gokul Gopal, who runs the nano-fabrication lab. ‘Nano’ is a pretty small scale; there are one billion nanometers in a meter and Dr. Gopal can actually build things that small. He and I and our students are trying to develop filters with nanoscale pores. What is interesting about this technology is that while filters have traditionally been built with round holes, this technology can make holes that are not only small, but a variety of shapes. Imagine if you wanted to filter two vegetables, a tomato and a carrot, that have the same weight but different shapes. In the past, a filter would be based on weight, so the round tomato and the long carrot would both fit through the same hole. Now if you have something you want to separate, you can customize the shape and only one of the items will go through. It is a potentially very powerful technology with many possible applications. I am passionate about this project, but no less than I am with all of my other projects. There is a lot of opportunity to express yourself creatively across the UW-Platteville campus. That is just what you hope for when you accept a position at a university.

In your classes, what do you emphasize to your students to help them succeed?

For me, I equate success with happiness. One goal of a biology major is to learn how to speak a specific kind of language, but to be successful I ask my students to contemplate what they are passionate about. There is a lot of merit in learning about biology: fascinating field, lots of fundamentals of life and many different careers that you can pursue with a biology degree. But that does not mean that biology has to be the first thing you think about when you wake up in the morning. Find that thing that you do because you love it, that hobby. The world of biology is a multi-trillion dollar industry. Anything that makes that kind of money has a need for every type of skill. Combine the special language you’ve learned as an undergraduate with the thing that you are passionate about. Chances are that you are going to live a happy life.

During unguarded moments I’ve been known to share with my students where I found my inspiration. As a kid, my mom would often catch me under the kitchen sink mixing different cleaning chemicals to see if I could make them bubble or smoke. I can remember getting in trouble for that. Twenty years later, during my first laboratory job, it occurred to me that I was getting paid to do this thing that I used to get my ears boxed for doing. How was it that I could be getting a salary for something I used to get in trouble for doing? I felt like I was cheating! I knew then that I had found the career for me.

Within the field of biology, what are some unique topics that intrigue you the most?

I am really interested in the question of fate. You don’t need to be a scientist to appreciate the fact that we start from a single cell and become these remarkably complex and unique individuals. It is an area of science but also theology and philosophy; everyone is grappling with what the human condition means. I’m really interested in how these early decisions of fate happen - when you take a right turn to Dubuque or a left turn to Madison. Sometimes you can turn around and go the other way but also, sometimes, its just not worth it. You’ve gone far enough up the road that you should just keep going in that direction.

Fate occurs essentially in one of two ways: you can make an active decision and, for instance, become a heart cell biologist, or you can make no decision but you’re still going to move along, you’re still going to be fated to do something. Sometimes the strategy for choosing a fate is to not choose. I find those kinds of questions very fascinating and I explore them with my students in our stem cell work. How do you take this cell and turn it into a beating heart cell and how do you take this cell and turn it into a neuron that is going to be able to transmit a signal for when you touch something that is too hot? I find these things incredibly fascinating because they can be philosophical questions that have physical answers if you have the right model to look at them. If students ask those questions, explore them, and start to see answers, it can be really inspiring. Almost all of those students who have done that kind of work have gone on to get a further degree so they can look at these things more closely with new techniques, technologies, and resources.