Science & Technology

'Go Big' Advises USU Alum and NIH Research Awardee William Israelsen

USU alum William Israelsen '08, a cancer researcher at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas, is the recipient of a 2015 NIH Early Independence Award.

If you fall in love with research, says Utah State University alum William Israelsen, work hard to become an expert in whatever research techniques you are using and go after the biggest and most important questions you can find.

Israelsen, who is following his own advice and studying how hibernation in animals may aid the fight against cancer in humans, was recently selected as one of 16 investigators in the nation to receive the National Institutes of Health Early Independence Award.

According to the NIH website, the award program, established in 2011 and part of the NIH’s High-Risk, High-Reward Research Program, allows creative, early-career scientists to leapfrog the traditional postdoctoral training period by providing funding of up to $250,000 per year for five years to conduct independent investigation in their own laboratories.

Israelsen, an Honors graduate who earned bachelor’s degrees in biology and economics from USU in 2008, is a research scientist at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas. Following graduation from Utah State, he earned a doctoral degree in biology in 2014 from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he studied cancer metabolism under the guidance of Matthew Vander Heiden, M.D., Ph.D.

Israelsen, who joined UT’s Department of Biochemistry as a Sara and Frank McKnight Independent Fellow in January, 2015, says he became intrigued with hibernation as he realized none of the questions he was interested in studying had been answered.

“(My colleagues and I) were talking about ways we could gain a better understanding of the hyperactive metabolism of growing cancer cells, which divide very quickly, and hibernation came up as a counterexample,” says the North Logan, Utah, native. “The idea was to look up how animals shut down metabolism during hibernation, and then use that information to understand how cancer cells regulate their metabolic pathways.”

Israelsen’s interest in research was fueled by his undergraduate experiences working in the labs of former USU Biology faculty members Peter Ruben and Paul Cliften, along with a number of memorable classroom experiences.

“The varied teaching styles of Frank Messina and Brett Adams in biology and Joanie Hevel and Steve Aust in biochemistry, helped to prepare me for the intense graduate coursework at MIT,” he says.

Israelsen also remembers his participation in the Koch Scholar Program as “one of the very best experiences I had at USU.”

“I read books I normally wouldn’t have read and I had the opportunity to consider and discuss big ideas with a group of very intelligent people from diverse backgrounds,” he says. “The weekly Koch Scholar discussions were a lot of fun and probably the highlight of my academic experience at USU.”

Beyond academics, Israelsen, who is the son of USU Huntsman School of Business professor Dwight Israelsen, fondly remembers going to Aggie football and basketball games, taking road trips with friends to see the Aggies vie in conference tournaments, eating Aggie Ice Cream and sledding on Old Main Hill.

“My advice to USU undergrads is to get as much research experience as you can,” Israelsen says. “Stick with it, because it might take a semester or more for you to really get the hang of things and decide if you want to pursue a research career. Research isn’t for everybody, but your time at USU is the perfect opportunity to explore that decision.”

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Contact: William Israelsen, William.Israelsen@UTSouthwestern.edu

Writer: Mary-Ann Muffoletto, 435-797-3517, maryann.muffoletto@usu.edu

Israelsen, pictured during his undergrad years, says he developed a passion for research at Utah State. He urges undergrads to 'go after the biggest and most important questions you can find.'

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