April 1, 2017

Darrell Belke | No regrets

Darrell Belke, PhD, has some amazing stories to tell about his research career.

Darrell Belke, PhD, has some amazing stories to tell about his research career.

The basic research scientist has been a member of the Libin Cardiovascular Institute of Alberta at the Cumming School of Medicine (CSM) since 2009.  Formerly an assistant professor in the University of Calgary’s (UCalgary) faculty of kinesiology from 2009-2014, Belke now works strictly in the lab, doing everything from molecular biology research to heart surgery on mice.

Belke - who is originally a farm kid from Northern Alberta - couldn’t be happier with his career choice.  “I have no regrets,” he said. “I enjoy the thrill of discovering something new, and I get to work with a large number of people both inside and outside the lab.”  Belke explained he works with a number of research teams from a variety of institutes within CSM and enjoys the opportunity to collaborate.

Belke’s career began at the University of Alberta (U of A), where he earned a masters degree in zoology in 1989. He studied the role of calcium handling in the cardiac cells of gophers, which maintain a body temperature of about 5C when hibernating.

“We were trying to figure out how they survive those low temperatures,” said Belke.

But studying the prairie rodents was no easy task. “We had to catch our own gophers and build our own equipment,” said Belke with a laugh, noting he often jokes with students about how easy they have it.  Still, it was a satisfying project.  “It was true discovery science, true inductive reasoning,” said Belke, explaining he had a true eureka moment while out on a run that helped him solve the major problem in the study.

This reasoning enabled the team to calculate accurately the impact that cooling had on the intracellular calcium in compartments of heart cells.

After this work, Belke went on to complete a doctorate in pharmacology in 1997 at the U of A, and a postdoctoral fellowship in pharmacology and physiology at UCalgary that resulted in the first working mouse heart models used in the study of energy metabolism.  This method, developed in Calgary, is now used in laboratories around the world.

He then completed a postdoctoral fellowship in molecular biology at the University of California at San Diego. Afterwards, he remained at the institution in the role of project scientist.

The Alberta boy returned to UCalgary in 2009 to take over the lab of his former mentor, David Severson, PhD, whose research interests included the regulation of cardiac metabolism and the effects of diabetes on heart health.  

Belke said the varied techniques he has picked up from mentors and colleagues in different labs over the years have served him well.  Being skilled at everything from building and modifying equipment, to molecular imaging, to mouse surgery allows the researcher to not only collaborate with scientists from numerous faculties, but also to mentor young scientists—a role Belke loves.

It also means he is rarely bored—unless he takes a vacation. “If I go on a vacation, I get bored, so I often haul out my computer to check on data,” said Belke. “When you have science in your blood, it draws you back.”

Tidbits from Darrell:

Favourite time of the day: The quiet moments in the early morning before he leaves for work. That’s when he has time to think—and get excited—about what his work day will hold.

Biggest influence on his career?: Fellow student, Micheal Jordan, has been the biggest influence on his career. This PhD student programmed his own computer, built his own equipment, and inspired Belke to do the same.

What does he enjoy doing in his free time?: Belke is a former runner that now enjoys hiking in his free time. Sometimes he heads off to the mountains, but he often spends hours walking in different areas of the city of Calgary.

Favourite animal?: Belke calls on his prairie roots when he identifies his favourite animal. He says the single-minded tenacity of the badger is inspiring.

What does a typical Saturday looks like?: A typical Saturday morning for the researcher consists of getting up, doing some household chores and coming to the lab to check on the animals.

The best thing about working here?: Belke loves working at the University of Calgary. Because it’s a smaller institution, it allows him to get to know the people and their research, something he finds exciting.