Original Science Talent Search Winner's Career Spanned Military, Medicine, and Research | Society for Science & the Public
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Original Science Talent Search Winner's Career Spanned Military, Medicine, and Research

June 28, 2012

The first Science Talent Search (originally sponsored by Westinghouse and sponsored by Intel since 1998), was held in 1942. Paul Teschan was named the Top Boy and went on to an eventful career in the military, research, and medical fields, focusing on nephrology. His counterpart, Marina Prajmovsky, named Top Girl, passed away in 1974 after a successful career as an ophthalmologist. Below Dr. Teschan describes his experiences.

What was your experience being a Science Talent Search finalist like?

My chemistry teacher originally suggested that I apply for the Science Talent Search, so I filled out the application and then forgot about it. When I received the call notifying me that I was a finalist, I was astonished. The trip to Washington, D.C. was the first time I had been out of the state of Wisconsin and we had a marvelous itinerary. At the final banquet, when I was all packed to go home, they called me up as the Grand Winner. I was dumbfounded; I really had no expectation that I would be selected.

How did you initially become interested in science?

In the 6th grade, I read a book called Microbe Hunters by Paul de Kruif that described the work of Falk, Pasteur, and others doing experimental work. It was my first introduction to the scientific method, and I must have read it five or six times. That was what first piqued my interest.

How did participating in the STS affect your future career?

In 1942, there was no original research required to be selected for the STS. Instead, you submitted an application and an essay. This was shortly after Pearl Harbor and the essay topic was “how science can help win the war.” I likely would have attempted to pursue a career in science with or without the STS, but winning provided external validation and a huge stimulus. It provided me with evidence that science was a reasonable option and legitimized my career aspirations.

Can you share some career or research highlights?

I attended medical school at the University of Minnesota. We were on an accelerated schedule, so I graduated in August, but wouldn’t be able to start my internship until the next June. So, I decided to get a Master’s degree in neurophysiology. After I graduated, in 1948, it looked like war with the Soviet Union was likely. I had been deferred from the draft while in medical school, but with the threat of another war looming decided to volunteer for the Army.

I was originally assigned to the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research. Military R & D programs try to anticipate medical and surgical problems that soldiers will encounter wherever deployed in the world. In previous wars, acute kidney failure in wounded soldiers had a 90% mortality rate. I was sent to Brigham Hospital (now Brigham and Women’s Hospital) in Boston to learn about a rotation drum dialyzer, or “artificial kidney.” We brought this technology back and set up the first Army dialysis unit at Walter Reed. I later set up a second unit at Brook General Hospital at Fort Sam Houston in Texas and flew to Korea to set up a unit there during the war. I commanded the team and led the unit in Korea for approximately a year; this was my introduction to acute kidney failure and what would lead to the rest of my career.

After Korea, I returned to Texas where we noticed that mortality rates using the rotating drum dialyzer after patients became visibly ill were still very high. We experimented with doing dialysis everyday with a smaller machine on patients once they had been diagnosed, rather than waiting for visible symptoms. This was known as prophalytic daily dialysis and was a real paradigm shift in patient treatment. We also decided to change the method we had been using to study how and why a kidney shut down and began working backward from the time of shutdown, instead of the common approach of attempting to recreate the failure. I returned to Walter Reed in 1960, where I served as the Chief of the Division of Medicine and the Department Chair in Nephrology. During the Vietnam War, I commanded a medical research team focusing on the occurrence and treatment of infectious diseases and wounds on the ground. While I was there, 15,000 people were infected with cholera due to bacteria in the water of the Mekong River.

In 1969, I retired from the military and became an Associate Professor of Medicine at Vanderbilt. I went on to become a full professor and then a professor emeritus. While at Vanderbilt, I researched the neurobehavioral link to kidney failure and found that kidney disease manifests itself and can be tracked by measuring brain activity. Clinically, I chaired one of 15 units across the country that participated in a national cooperative study for prevention of progression of kidney failure, called the modification of diet in renal disease study (MDRD). Phases 1 through 5 of the study took about 10 years. The team showed patients how to use diet, medication, and lifestyle changes to address kidney disease by using what is called health assurance coaching. Health assurance coaching is taken from the athletic model and replaces the directive/authoritative approach previously used by healthcare providers with an evocative approach- the coach is on the sidelines, introduces players to winning skills, and instills the will and belief to win. This was very different from the standard medical care at the time because it invested in the patient’s self-efficacy and knowledge, rather than assuming they would follow direct orders.

When I retired from Vanderbilt in 1983, they named a lectureship after me. Approximately 23 speakers have been a part of this series. In addition, I continue to attend Grand Rounds on a regular basis and speak at Grand Rounds in the Division of Nephrology annually. I’ve also become very involved with the Episcopalian Church, was married and widowed twice, and have two sons. I learned to play piano by ear as a child, and have volunteered regularly for adult literacy programs. I’m currently volunteering at a primary school working on improving literacy skills for children in grades 2-4. I have a chapter, “Dialysis in Military Casualties with Post Traumatic Acute Renal Failure: Evolution from Dialysis to Reverse Indications to Daily Dialysis to Prevent Indications” being published in a book on the history of dialysis this year. People tell me I am one of very few individuals who has continued to publish for six decades.

What advice do you have for young students interested in science?

Follow your star. Know what you are interested in, and then find colleagues you can work with. During graduate school and early in your career, you will probably be doing more research that your professor and/or supervisor is interested in, but hang in there. Hard work will help connect you to your next career step. Also, avoid the “squirrel cage trap.” This is the cycle where you let the money that’s available dictate the research you conduct. Grants follow fads. If you focus on fad research, you lose the intrinsic value of science. It drains the creativity, individuality, and independent thought that are so critical for science. Always attribute credit to others when due; it never hurts you to give other people credit. Science is built upon centuries of others’ research. Use negative results to further your education and revise your approach; they can be hugely instructive. Lastly, be prepared for thrills. When your hypothesis or paradigm shift in thought is proved accurate and becomes the standard, it is absolutely unforgettable.

You were the “First Boy” winner in the initial year of the Westinghouse Science Talent Search. What are the things that stick out to you most about how things have changed over the past 70 years? Is there anything that continues to stay the same?

The big change over the years is in the volume, complexity, and pace that new information and technology is being developed. I worry that a lot of research money is going toward refinements and incremental changes instead of focusing on the big picture and new ways of thinking. What hasn’t changed is the need for clear thinking, willingness to learn from mistake and disappointments, and the need for personal integrity in science.