FAIRBANKS, Alaska — If one had any doubt that scientist Larry Duffy is a busy man, one need only look at his University of Alaska business card. On one side it reads: Larry Duffy, Director, Resilience and Adaptation Program, while the other side reads: Larry Duffy, Professor of Chemistry and Biochemistry. Spend some time talking with the man at his office in the West Ridge Research Building and you realize Duffy’s interests and work are so varied he could probably use several additional sets of two-sided cards.
An education in the far north
A native of Brooklyn, New York, Duffy earned his bachelor’s in chemistry from Fordham University in 1969. America was in the middle of the Vietnam War at the time, but Duffy received a two year deferment to earn his master’s degree. When given a choice of which university to go to, Duffy chose UAF even though “if you’re a New Yorker you want to go to the University of Miami, because that’s where all the girls are.”
“I went out and looked at the little board in front of the chemistry office and the first university it had listed was University of Alaska, so I said, ‘That sounds like a good idea,’” Duffy said. “Of course, I didn’t think I’d get it.”
Duffy not only earned his master’s in organic chemistry at UAF, he also met Gerrie Sheridan, the woman who would become his wife. Duffy was commissioned as a lieutenant in the United States Naval Reserves and shipped out two days after his wedding day. However, he got lucky and didn’t get sent to the “hot war” in Vietnam, but instead spent the next three years fighting the Cold War, “sailing in circles, chasing Russian submarines around the Mediterranean.”
Duffy chose to return to UAF after his service was over and earned his Ph.D. in biochemistry in 1977. After several years of research at Boston University, the Roche Institute of Molecular Biology, the University of Texas and Harvard Medical School, Duffy returned to UAF in 1987 as an associate professor in the Department of Chemistry. He was made department head in 1984 and appointed the College of Natural Science and Mathematics associate dean for graduate programs and outreach in 2000.
Duffy said he and Gerrie, a local real estate agent, came back to Alaska because it’s “a great place to raise kids and to have a family.” The couple have three children: Anne, an artist who teaches art at UAF’s College of Liberal Arts; Kevin, a computer expert who teaches in Portland; and Ryan, an engineer who recently graduated from UAF.
Understanding the challenges of the Arctic
Throughout his career, Duffy has studied a variety of problems specific to life in the Arctic. While in graduate school, he studied the effects of seasons on large mammals with wildlife scientist Bob White, researching the “two key stresses” of temperature and light cycles that influence the sleeping and eating behaviors of Arctic people. Working with the US Army, they explored the role that melatonin “the hormone of darkness,” plays in these stresses, and discovered soldiers — and indeed all Alaskans — have increased melatonin levels in winter. This increase causes shifts in a person’s diurnal rhythm and is associated with seasonal affective disorder, which can influence activity and susceptibility to disease.
Duffy’s postdoctoral work focused on human proteins synthesis and bacterial toxins in human diseases. He studied beta amyloid and neurofibrillary tangles in Alzheimer’s disease. Duffy learned and used several biomarker assays, which he used in collaboration with UAF biologists and state and federal agencies to study species threatened by the Exxon Valdez oil spill. Duffy credits this work with putting him on the path to expanding his research.
“I’ve broadened my research activity from protein structure into the area of wildlife and human environmental health. The oil spill focused my attention on the need to develop biomarkers to monitor and assess the health of wildlife populations. These studies demonstrated that chronic exposure could be measured biochemically in mammals, not only showing damage to a resource, but also demonstrating recovery of the ecosystem,” Duffy said.
“Biomarkers in human health research led my research group back to wildlife and fish, but this time I focused on mercury exposure to humans from the fish that Alaskans consume. My work on mercury in subsistence food has been used by policymakers on the national level and allows me to involve undergraduate students in research and discuss issues of environmental ethics and justice.”
Making education accessible
Duffy’s work as an educator is focused on mentoring graduate students, teaching junior and senior level biology and chemistry and teaching a slightly lower level of those subjects to allied health majors pursuing careers as nurses, dental hygienists, village health aides and lab technicians, among others.
“It’s targeted toward their literacy associated with their profession,” he said.
He is working on making the allied health courses available online for distance learning.
“It’s all about access. This allows students to stay in their community, where they have jobs and they’re working. And they can get these lower level requirements out of the way. If you’re living out in the village and have a family, you can’t move into Anchorage or Fairbanks, but a lot of jobs require you have a certificate. This is a global and national problem: We make these requirements and then we don’t provide means and access,” Duffy said.
Duffy said his department put one class online several years ago and it has been “extremely successful.” They plan to add more classes, one of which he will teach.
Exciting new research
Although he’s busy with the allied health program, Duffy continues his research. He continues to work on resilience and adaptation in environmental health and is eagerly anticipating a new project using sled dogs to study Alzheimer’s disease. Since “animals don’t know how to speak and take psychological tests,” Duffy will work with Dr. Kriya Dunlap to study the accumulation of beta amyloid, tau and other proteins associated with Alzheimer’s by measuring the amounts in the dogs’ brains via periodic MRI scans. The dogs will be sedated and a vet technician will be on hand to monitor the dogs during the scans. The participating dogs will be scanned from the ages of 3 or 4 to the time of their natural deaths, at which time a necropsy can be performed and the brain tissue examined.
“Using noninvasive brain image scanning technology, we can begin to study interventions, such as diet and exercise, on the increase of beta amyloid and tau over time,” Duffy said. “I expect continued progress and support in understanding healthy aging in the Far North over the years.”