David C. Zawieja, PhD ’86
David C. Zawieja, PhD ’86
As a Medical College of Wisconsin graduate student in Physiology, David C. Zawieja, PhD ’86, spent “long hours in a dark room looking at things under the microscope.”
Today he is Professor and Vice Chairman of Systems Biology and Translational Medicine
at Texas A&M Health Science Center in Temple, Texas. He also is Director of the Cardiovascular Research Institute’s Division of Lymphatic Biology and Director of the Integrated Microscopic Imaging Laboratory.
Although he has administrative and teaching duties, most of his time is devoted to pure research. His specialty is the lymphatic vascular system, and he still spends long hours studying microscopic structures and processes. “We’re focusing on the transport of fluids from interstitial spaces back into the venous system and the crucial role this has in immune function,” he said.
Incentive for his efforts is manifested in the “millions who have diseases related to the lymph system,” and he laments the paucity of therapies available to them. He has published scores of papers, given dozens of lectures and symposia and is an associate editor for both Microcirculation and Lymphatic Research and Biology.
He is particularly proud of a 2003 paper titled “Molecular and Functional Analyses of the Contractile Apparatus in Lymphatic Muscle” that he co-authored with four other researchers (Mariappan Muthuchamy, Anatoliy Gashev, Niven Boswell and Nancy Dawson).1 It appeared in the Federation of the American Societies for Experimental Biology Journal and included the “first description of contractile proteins found in lymphatics.” 2
“Our research showed that the lymph vessel muscle is actually a hybrid between smooth and striated."
“We were able to examine the vessels at the cellular and molecular levels to prove something that hadn’t been appreciated before,” he said. “Our research showed that the lymph vessel muscle is actually a hybrid between smooth and striated. Lymphatics act like heart muscles, GI muscles and serve as conduits, all at the same time. Our findings shook the paradigm, and it’s satisfying to be part of a discovery like that. Now we’re working on how it occurs; frankly, we still don’t know.”
When Dr. Zawieja began working at Texas A&M in the late 1980s, the institution’s medical school was relatively new and small, with just one campus. Since then, it has grown to what he describes as three-and-a-half campuses.
“We have an excellent research reputation and offer a close student-to-professor ratio, and that has contributed to our success,” he said.
Dr. Zawieja grew up in Milwaukee and received his bachelor’s degree from the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay (“I was a Packers fan at birth”) and then began graduate school at the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, New York.
“While home on vacation from Rensselaer, I visited The Medical College of Wisconsin with a friend and was very impressed,” he said, “so I wound up transferring. People at the school had huge impacts on my life, and I am absolutely enthralled by what I learned and how things have worked out. I wouldn’t change one iota.”
Advice he received from the late William (Billy) Joe Barber, PhD, his graduate school advisor, still guides him. “Billy always told me it was important to try as much as possible to ignore preconceived notions in science. ‘A little naiveté can go a long way,’ he used to say.”
Despite his many responsibilities, Dr. Zawieja finds time to serve on the Scientific/Medical Advisory Council of the Lymphatic Research Foundation.
Dr. Zawieja lives in Temple with his wife, Cindy, who is director of student nutrition in the school system of Belton, a nearby community. Three of their children—Danica, Scott, and Alyssa—are in college and the fourth, Kyle, is a high school junior.
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