Charting the Unknown: Piroska Szabó of the Van Andel Research Institute

by Elyse Wild • photography by Two Eagles Marcus 

The path to discovery is often dark, illuminated only by the insatiable curiosity of those who walk it. Every day, research is conducted in labs all around the world and progress is made, step-by-step, toward a better understanding of humankind. Much of that progress is made in labs right here in Grand Rapids at the Van Andel Research Institute. The building sits on the corner of Bostwick and Crescent and looks as state of the art as the biomedical research taking place inside of it, with a descending arched skylight roof that pulls sunlight into each level of the structure.

Piroska Szabó, Ph.D., is one such individual leading innovative studies at the Institute. Szabó’s voice is soft, tinged with a lovely Eastern European accent, and her smile reaches her eyes when she describes the adventure of research.

Piroska Szabó of the Van Andel Research Institute

“I like research in general because you are in a territory where no one has been before,” Szabó said. “You find your way and put these puzzles together, and sometimes you have to make your tools to get somewhere. It is so new that it may not be known how to move forward, and you find a way to put things together.”

As an associate professor and lead investigator at the Van Andel Research Institute Center for Epigenetics, Szabó spends her days studying what makes us who are on the deepest level. Epigenetics (literally meaning “on top of genetics”) are a set of controls that instruct our genes when to switch on or off. These switches have a significant impact on fertility, child development, heritable cancers and other conditions. Her specific focus is on the transmission of epigenetic information from parents to children, and how it’s removed during egg and sperm productions and rewritten during fetal development.

After spending 20 years conducting research in California, Szabó and her husband—also an epigeneticist—leapt at the opportunity to come to the Van Andel Research Institute in 2014.

“I love having all of these epigeneticists around,” Szabó expressed. “It is so good to have a concentration of people like this. It is a very exciting place to be.”

When Szabó talks about her groundbreaking research, the sparkle in her eye reflects a love of science that blossomed in childhood. Her journey to the Van Andel Institute began in Szeged, Hungary —a city whose most famous resident was awarded a Noble Prize in 1937 for discovering vitamin C—where she grew up and first became interested in biology.

“My inspiration to do science came from a teacher in middle school,” Szabó said. “I really liked biology at that time. There was a special class that brought in talented kids from all over the country to do a  class of half biology and half chemistry, so we got a great education.”

Szabó recalls bicycling around the future site of the Biological Research Centre of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences in Szeged with her father when she was a little girl.

“We were bicycling around the construction site, and my father said, ‘Maybe you will work here one day!’” Szabó laughed. “I ended up doing my undergraduate research there.”

After earning her doctorate in molecular biology from József Attila University, Szeged, Hungary, she joined the Beckman Research Institute of City of Hope, Duarte, California in 1992 as a postdoctoral fellow. It was at the Beckman Institute where Szabó was part of a team that developed a famous model for genomic imprinting.

“We did experiments and confirmed our model based on biochemical analysis,” Szabó said. “I am really proud of this because it made it into textbooks.”

Szabó has had many impressive moments throughout her education and career, but she says nothing compares to the excitement she felt as an undergraduate student entering the research center in Szeged.

“People there just talked to me like I could understand things,” she smiled. “They didn’t talk to me like I was just a beginner. They said, ‘We are doing real, important research, and you can be a part of it.’ That was so exciting for me.”

Now a teacher herself, Szabó describes the thrill of recognizing the expression of understanding on the faces of her graduate students when a web of information falls into place.

“They come in a little bit unsure, like it is overwhelming, but by the end of the class I can see things click,” Szabó said. “I can see that they get it and they understand it. I like to demystify things for them.”

Szabó’s daily tasks at the Institute include managing lab employees, coordinating research meetings, authoring grants, analyzing data and keeping abreast of the latest research publications so she can provide her students with the juiciest papers to work with.

She always makes sure to slip into the lab to take a breather from management work and re-center herself by doing what comes most naturally to her–conducting an experiment.

“Sometimes I escape into the lab, and I feel so accomplished,” Szabó laughed. “You do an experiment and it is done and you feel so useful!”

In spite of all she has accomplished in her field, Szabó doesn’t consider her work nearly done; she aims to continue making strides in epigenetics and to answer the questions that remain.

“These things still fascinate me, and I think my life will be long enough to learn something more.”

Elyse Wild

When she is not editing for WLM, Elyse enjoys traveling, enjoying live music, and practicing kung fu. She is a freelance writer in West Michigan and the owner-operator of personal biography service Your Story.



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