Fenwick alumnus Ray Bandziulis says he has spent his entire, 28-year career in the biotech field.
By Mark Vruno
Courses related to science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) are some of the more popular classes among Fenwick’s student body. Several members of the Class of 2021, for example, are enrolled in Freshman AP (Advanced Placement) and Honors Biology taught by Ms. Amy Christophell ’06. They, along with upper-classmen and women, were treated last semester to a visit by a distinguished Friar alumnus and biotechnology expert Ray Bandziulis, PhD.,’76.
Dr. Bandziulis is Vice President of Quality Assurance & Regulatory Affairs at Lucigen Corp. in Middleton, WI, near Madison, where he helps to design and manufacture reagent tools for DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid) and RNA (ribonucleic acid) research as well as molecular diagnostic devices for infectious diseases. With annual sales of approximately $15 million, the 20-year-old company now sells internationally. Bandziulis defines the biotech industry as “an interesting blend of science business and engineering skills – working together to solve problems in the life sciences and in human medicine by the application of DNA technology.”
A scientist at work in the Lucigen lab near Madison, Wisconsin.
Essentially every cell within each person’s body contains the same hereditary DNA – and this is where the differences begin to emerge. “Our unique ‘DNA signature’ identifies us as individuals,” Bandziulis explained to four groups of about 150 curious Fenwick students assembled in the school’s Auditorium in mid-November. He returned to visit his alma mater and reconnect with John Polka, his former biology teacher who retired last June after 52 years at Fenwick.
Since completing a postdoctoral fellowship at Northwestern University (Evanston, IL) in 1989, Bandziulis has spent his entire, 28-year career in the biotech field. “All of my work since leaving academic science has been outside of the laboratory,” he says, adding that he has been heavily involved with governmental regulation of clinical research labs and DNA diagnostic products.
Ray Bandziulis (left) and Mr. Polka in 1976 – Fenwick Yearbook photos.
Originally from Melrose Park, IL, Bandziulis attended Our Lady of Mount Carmel Catholic Church as a boy – a minority Lithuanian-American amid a predominantly Italian parish at that time. After Fenwick, he received a B.A. with honors in biological sciences from NU and then a Ph.D. in cell and molecular biology from Yale University (New Haven, CT). While studying at Yale, he was a member of the Vetra Lithuanian Folk Dance Group in Connecticut. He then returned to NU, where he conducted research as the Anna Fuller Cancer Fund Fellow in Biochemistry.
The 59-year-old alumnus discussed the growth of DNA and biotech advances over the past quarter-century, including next-generation sequencing and microbiomes, as well as its effects on society. “Genomic DNA is packaged in tightly wound coils of protein structures called nucleosomes,” he told some of Fenwick’s finest, adding later the anthropological and criminal significance of such discoveries: “We’ve come to understand how an individual’s surviving DNA can identify where a person was [physically] present.” Genomic DNA (gDNA) can be recovered at crime scenes from residual blood or hair, while intact mitochondrial DNA can be recovered from bone and fossil fragments found at archaeological excavations.
“A background in life sciences leads to more paths than just working in a lab or providing a pre-med qualification,” he explained to the students. “DNA science can be a springboard into many disciplines, such as bioethics, criminal forensics, the development of new medicines, anthropology and bioinformatics.”
Bioethics is the study of the ethical issues emerging from advances in biology and medicine; it also is moral discernment as it relates to medical policy and practice. “Bioethics specialties are part of law school and medical school curricula in some universities,” Bandziulis notes, “and these policy specialists are part of hospital administrative staffs.” Bioinformatics is an interdisciplinary field that develops methods and software tools for understanding DNA sequence data – big data sets as they applies to gDNA. As a STEM interdisciplinary field, bioinformatics combines computer science, biology, mathematics and engineering to analyze and interpret biological data.
M.D. or PhD. Path?
Fellow Friars and classmates from more than 40 years ago have referred to Bandziulis as nothing short of brilliant. He was the recipient of the 1976 Fenwick Faculty Honor Award for History and Social Studies. Back then, he aspired to be a medical doctor. “In high school, I had the idea of going into medicine, of becoming a physician,” Bandziulis remembers, citing his exposure to science and biology as a young Friar. “I had a terrific experience in Mr. Polka’s physiology course,” he adds, “learning anatomy and its function, including circulatory system basics and the mechanics of the human heart as well as its evolution and optimization. And I took that sense of wonderment and awe with me when I left Fenwick.”
He also took with him a deep respect for history, largely inspired and fostered by History Teacher Louis Spitznagel, who was Chairman of the Social Sciences Department during his time in Oak Park. “There is no doubt that Mr. Spitznagel sparked a love of history in me,” Bandziulis shares. “He inspired an appreciation of the forces of the past … and taught us how history informs the present – how it shapes the agenda for the present day.” This educational philosophy applies to his appreciation of biotechnology as well.
“These [experiences] definitely were part of the fuel for traveling down my medical avenue.” However, as an undergraduate student at NU, Bandziulis discovered other pathways. He was at a crossroads: “Do I go into medicine, or do I go into research?” He decided that he could have a greater impact on human life by taking the research route, graduating with a bachelor of arts degree in 1980 before moving on to Yale.
Prior to joining Lucigen, Bandziulis was part of the design team at Exact Sciences that developed and executed the clinical trial for Cologuard®, a non-invasive colon cancer screening test based on the latest advances in stool-sample DNA science. “Cologuard is a truly revolutionary methodology,” he says proudly. “We examined how colorectal cancer develops over 15 to 20 years, took our findings and turned them into a practical health-care product,” which was approved in 2014 by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). The test makes colon-cancer screening possible without the need for a colonoscopy or any dietary preparation.
The development of such products illustrates the diversity of how DNA technology can apply to different areas, Bandziulis points out. “Diagnostics is a critical area and is very active in biotech right now.” The use of biotechnology-based diagnostic tools can provide lucrative opportunities for firms such as Exact Sciences and Lucigen.
DNA technology also has been extended to mainstream consumers by the genealogy industry, which specializes in the use of high-tech gDNA sequencing methods to trace family history from DNA found in saliva and cheek cells. Ancestry.com, 23andMe, and their competitors capitalize on this familial aspect, offering intimate, genetic data results via relatively inexpensive (around $200) DNA test services. The technology employs DNA sequences to infer lineal relationships from DNA sequence information of other Ancestry users stored in databases. It provides what it calls “ethnicity estimates.” To date, more than six million curious people have made the investment in Ancestry’s offering.
Science Serving Justice?
DNA technology can have social implications, too. “It offers compelling data and reasons in ethical and social contexts,” Bandziulis explains. The criminal aspect has been popularized by television crime dramas such as “CSI: Crime Scene Investigation,” which portrayed new-age forensic investigators, “Criminal Minds,” “Law and Order: Special Victims Unit” and “NCIS.” In real life, Bandziulis began a 21-year stint with Wisconsin-based biotech company Promega Corp. (Fitchburg, WI) in 1989. In the early ’90s, the product development and manufacturing firm was focused on putting its patented DNA technologies to use in fields such as criminology and pathology, in addition to universities that were using them for research purposes.
State crime labs and even the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) began employing Promega’s high-tech DNA identification kits, which literally changed the ways in which crimes were solved. A suspect’s DNA can be extracted from bodily fluids such as saliva left on a postage stamp, an envelope or a coffee cup – “anywhere that skin cells are left,” as Bandziulis explains. It all sounds so simple: “Swab the scene, purify the DNA, and apply the test to develop a DNA ‘fingerprint,’” he instructs.
O.J. Simpson trying on the bloody gloves during his murder trial in 1995. (Image courtesy of Reuters/Sam Mircovich.)
In 1995 Promega’s innovative DNA I.D. kits were on TV, sort of: used behind the scenes for forensics during the 10-month-long criminal trial of alleged murderer and former pro football superstar O.J. Simpson. “A forensic DNA testing lab in Los Angeles bought the Promega products and used them to analyze the DNA from blood samples collected at the murder scene,” Bandziulis recalls, “including blood found on the now infamous glove. That lab was able to positively identify that O.J.’s blood was [present] there.” It was up to the jury to decide what, if anything, that forensic evidence meant.
Six years later, Promega was put to the test again in the aftermath of America’s terrorist tragedy on September 11th, 2001. After a few days it became clear that the devastated area around the World Trade Center’s Twin Towers was a victim-recovery effort, not a rescue effort. However, DNA identification laboratories had yet to be established in New York City, Bandziulis recalls, even though such technology already had existed since the early ’90s; such lab functions were available upstate in Albany, NY, but not in Manhattan at the time.
The search for 9/11 victims in the rubble. (Image courtesy of the Associated Press/Bill Farrington.)
The company sent volunteer expert scientists to create an on-site DNA testing lab so that samples could be analyzed at Ground Zero. Bandziulis recalls missing his Fenwick 25th Reunion because the Promega team was under such immense pressure to get the materials and equipment to New York as quickly as possible. “In many cases, this was the only way to identify people’s remains,” he says. “Victims’ families had to donate their DNA for matches.”
Interestingly, the U.S. Department of Defense even is using DNA technology tools to detect biological threats and hazardous materials, Bandziulis points out.
His Fenwick Legacy
“Fenwick prepares its students for lives of service,” Bandziulis says, reflecting on his high-school education. “My intellectual skills were triggered and developed there, and my teachers taught me a love of learning. To this day, I seek to learn more and understand better.”
Present Math Department Chairman Roger Finnell, now in his 55th year of teaching at Fenwick, comments: “I think it is important to hear from successful alumni in different fields … to hear from them what courses benefitted them the most from Fenwick, and to hear suggestions about what courses students need most in high school to prepare for different fields of study in college. And to hear their thoughts on how they prepared at Fenwick for their future work.”
History Instructor and Faculty Mentor Gerald Lordan, PhD., O.P., concurs and explains why Theology and Government students were brought to Bandziulis’s presentation last semester. Training literate workers today, he says, goes beyond teaching business law, business math and business English. “Today it means [teaching] calculus, chemistry, physics, genetics and information technology,” Dr. Lordan notes. “Future shock means the world changes faster than we can assimilate the stimuli. We need to bring the mountain to Muhammed if our students are to gain exposure to cutting-edge science. All this knowledge is under-utilized if we do not give additional training in logic and ethics. Our societal leaders will need all of these various attributes if they are to lead our society in the future.”
Teaching colleagues Finnell and Lordan agree that Ray Bandziulis is an ideal personification of a well-rounded Fenwick education. “Ray has blended his love of history and social studies into a multi-disciplinary STEM field that is helping to create real products and solve real-life problems at the cutting edge of scientific research,” Lordan concludes.
2 Books Recommended by Bandziulis
Fenwick students and alumni interested in learning about human genomic DNA science and how it came to be should consider adding this book to their reading list for 2018: The Gene: An Intimate History by Siddhartha Mukherjee (2016). “It is a history of the gene in laymen’s terms, without technical jargon,” Bandziulis says. For those interested in the confluence of genomic science and theology, the alumnus recommends another publication: The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief by Francis S. Collins, M.D. (2006). “Science, art and faith are all on a spectrum of the human desire for knowledge,” he concludes.