Dr. Ivan Rusyn, a professor at the College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences, was born in Kiev, Ukraine, the son of two engineers. From the beginning, the importance of education played a large role in his family; his parents were each first-generation college graduates who impressed their appreciation for science and learning on their children. So, it came as no surprise to the elder Rusyns when their son went on to get his M.D., then Ph.D. in toxicology, and their daughter a Ph.D. in biochemistry. “We’re trying to one-up our parents,” Rusyn joked.
It was his parents’ education that brought the Rusyn family from a coal-mining community in southeastern Ukraine and a farming village in western Ukraine to the capital city, Kiev. His parents were sent there in the 1960s after getting their college degrees to “repay” the free education the government provided. As a result, Rusyn grew up in Kiev during a unique period in Ukraine’s history.
In May of Rusyn’s eighth-grade year, the infamous Chernobyl nuclear power plant accident occurred-only 30 miles from Kiev. Despite the lack of official information in the immediate aftermath, news of the danger spread fast. “The biggest immediate threat was from radioactive iodine,” Rusyn explained.
Although it wasn’t potentially hazardous for Kiev adults, children were at risk because the iodine could affect thyroid development. “All of that wasn’t common knowledge, but it became common knowledge fast enough,” Rusyn recalled. “It took about two weeks for the [government] propaganda machine to actually admit what happened, but the rumor mill worked very fast. A lot of kids started disappearing from school.”
Rusyn soon joined the flight of children from the affected area to “safer places.” His parents stayed behind, sending him to his maternal grandmother’s home in southeastern Ukraine for the summer. When school started, he went to his father’s hometown in western Ukraine for the semester. It was nearly a year before he returned to his parents’ home in Kiev.
Educational Path to Science
After high school, Ivan Rusyn went on to medical school at the Bogomolets National Medical University in Kiev, where he spent the next six years training to become a physician. However, as he progressed through his studies, his interests began to veer away from clinical medicine. “I was really enjoying training to be a physician,” Rusyn said, “But I dabbled into research in the last two years [of medical school] and really, really liked it.” Once again, the Chernobyl blast altered the course of Rusyn’s education, albeit a bit more subtly this time. “[In our research] we were working with [Chernobyl] first responders and their blood samples and looking into reactive oxygen species and DNA damage. This work was both important and immediately applicable to prevention of the deleterious effects of radiation.”
Although Rusyn started his residency in ear, nose, and throat surgery, he couldn’t resist the research career. During a trip to a conference in Germany he met Helmut Sies, one of the leading researchers into oxidative stress at the time. Sies made Rusyn an offer he couldn’t refuse: an invitation to work in his lab for a year on a German government fellowship (DAAD). Rusyn leapt at the opportunity. He left his residency in Kiev for Germany and never looked back.
After spending a year in Germany, Rusyn was thoroughly hooked on research-with a particular interest in toxicology. On the advice of colleagues, he applied to graduate school in the United States. In 1996, he began his doctoral studies in toxicology at the University of North Carolina (UNC) at Chapel Hill, followed by two years of post-doctoral work at UNC and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). He then returned to UNC in 2012 to launch his career in academia as an assistant professor. He made full professor in just eight years-quite the feat.
Texas A&M; University Snatches Rusyn
In 2014, Ivan Rusyn moved to College Station to join the Texas A&M University College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences (CVM) team. As with many of his career changes, it wasn’t an expected move. He was happy at UNC, but was ultimately swayed by Texas A&M;’s commitment to the One Health Initiative, which fit his research in environmental health. “The concept of One Health was a very big attraction because I knew this wasn’t just an attempt by university administrators to bring in one person,” he explained. “It was a concerted effort with all these outstanding researchers coming together in the college, having this drive. It was very important for me to feel that the administration had a commitment to the broader [One Health] picture, rather than just a commitment to me and my lab.”
Since moving to the CVM, Rusyn has devoted himself to filling in the gaps in knowledge about the chemicals in our environment that affect human health. “The biggest problem in the field of environmental health and toxicology is lack of comprehensive safety information on most chemicals in the environment and commerce. There is this paradigm: no data, no hazard; no hazard, no risk. Most of the chemicals in the environment have not been tested for safety, so we just assume that they’re safe,” Rusyn explained. Here at the CVM, Rusyn is working to develop experimental models that explore the connections between chemicals and human health and quantify inter-individual differences in chemical effects.
Using his background in medicine and toxicology, Rusyn seeks to understand the root causes of environmental disease and to assist both the government and industry with making science-informed regulatory decisions. “As a former physician in training, I would much rather prevent diseases than treat them, but you also need to make sure we are using solid science to protect human and environmental health, while allowing safe use of chemicals in our lives,” he said. “Dealing with people that are sick is A, expensive, and B, not very effective. Trying to prevent diseases has a potentially larger impact.”
To that end, Rusyn works with both regulators and the industry to develop models that determine the safest levels and combinations of the chemicals in our environment. He works with industry toxicologists to identify gaps in knowledge about their products, then designs and conducts experiments to produce safety information. On the other side of the aisle, Rusyn addresses the big-picture concerns of regulators at state, federal, and international levels, listening to their questions, using his research to produce answers, and understanding how best complex scientific information can be communicated. “We’re trying to serve as an impartial broker between the regulators and the regulated and listen to both sides and try to come up with solutions,” Rusyn said. “A strong institutional commitment to multi-disciplinary research and applied solutions creates an incentive for our work with the industry and governmental partners to figure out what challenges they have. We can design and do experiments and connect all the dots, and that’s extremely rewarding to me.”
Much of Rusyn’s research focuses on analyzing the combined effects of multiple chemicals on human health. By focusing on complex substances, such as petroleum refining products which “may contain a myriad of individual chemicals,” he seeks to develop experimental models that will radically change the way we look at chemical toxicology, shifting the focus from testing and regulating individual chemicals to complex mixtures, a much more realistic exposure scenario. “Human exposures are not one chemical at a time, but we try to regulate and protect human health one chemical at a time,” Rusyn explained.
“Petroleum substances are an excellent example of complexity of chemical exposures and we’re trying to stay on the cutting edge of the field.”
Rusyn and his lab and collaborators are developing models that look at mixtures both forward and backward. He’s not just looking at known chemical combinations, but also creating methods to analyze the effects of an unknown mixture to predict the chemical components and how they will affect human and environmental health as a whole.
In addition, he led a team of researchers at A&M; and beyond to propose a large research program to the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to analyze the impact of chemical disasters and develop first-response tools to protect human health. From tropical storms and flooding events to oil and chemical spills, we live in a world of constant environmental threats. The consortium’s goal is to “develop faster, cheaper, better tools for decision-makers to decide quickly whether there is a danger or hazard” and how those dangers may affect different individuals or populations. “We’re trying to develop tools that can be used to actually get a [high-level] answer within days rather than months or years, because within months or years, it’s too late. Most decisions right now are, ‘Let’s just move people out because we really have no idea,'” he said.
Rusyn is a pragmatist at heart. His ultimate goal is to provide the research tools and data that will allow for responsible decision-making on both sides, to identify acceptable exposures rather than ignore problems or raise false alarms. “The challenges are many and daunting, but they’re not completely intractable,” he said. “What makes me excited is that we’re trying to bridge between the industry and the regulators and while being protective of human health, at the same time bring facts and data for them to make decisions.”
Since joining the CVM, Ivan Rusyn has been impressed by the interdisciplinary cooperation that makes his research possible. “The beauty of this campus is that there are lots of very smart people and you can collaborate with many of them. The overall intellectual and physical capacity of this campus is just staggering.”
He embraces the CVM’s spirit of innovation and gets just as much satisfaction from teaching the next generation of toxicologists as from his research. Just as his parents encouraged him to exceed their accomplishments, he enjoys training his students to succeed in their own rights. Rusyn measures his own success not by recognition or awards, but by the accomplishments of his mentees and colleagues. “Success of trainees is easier to measure,” he said. “I see how many of them have successful careers in academia, industry, or government, how many of them I see being successful and sought after and become stars. I think that would be a better measure of my contributions to the field.”
Rusyn’s emphasis on sensible, data-driven solutions and collaborating for a better future falls in line with his pragmatic world view. “I’m just a simple person. I’m trying to communicate at the right level,” he said. Whether he’s working with industry or government, teaching students, or speaking in the international media, Rusyn’s goal is clear: Get the facts, communicate the message to the right people, and make this world a safer place for all.