Cardiology researcher finds niche at Masonic lab

Utica native Matthew Betzenhauser moved back to his hometown in December to work at Masonic Medical Research Laboratory, making him one of two Americans and the only local researcher on a staff of 15 scientists.

The move brings him home to family and friends and lets him pursue his research in experimental cardiology in collaboration with experienced scientists, he said.

It also brings him closer to Rochester, where his wife – the former Kristen Farccola, also a Utica native – and daughter, Isabella, 6, are living for now. He had been doing postdoctoral work in New York City.

“This was a great mix of science and geography for me really,” he said. “This was the best-case scenario.”

Of course, now that Betzenhauser, 37, is back, his parents are moving to Florida, but he still has a brother, sister and friends in the area. And he’s been spending his free time remembering where all the best pizza places are and researching the latest Saranac beers.

Several weeks after his homecoming, Betzenhauser found out about a terrific welcome-home present for the lab – a $200,000 laser scanning confocal microscope, bought with a $75,000 grant from the Community Foundation of Herkimer Oneida Counties and the proceeds from the An Affair of the Heart fundraiser.

Although the microscope still is being built, the manufacturer has loaned the lab a comparable model since April. The microscope will belong to the lab and other scientists will use it, but it is at the heart of Betzenhauser’s research.

Betzenhauser uses fluorescence to light up substances within a single heart cell. The microscope then shows him 3-D slices of the cells, letting him track the activity of those substances within the cell. His interest lies in studying the role of calcium in heart cells.

“When you look in a microscope and watch the calcium going up and down, it gets addicting,” he said.

Working in collaboration with the lab’s genetics and stem-cell divisions, the microscope helps Betzenhauser determine what goes wrong in heart cells to cause a cardiac arrhythmia and whether mixing in a particular drug can fix the problem.

“He brings expertise to this lab that complements what we do in a very important way,” said Dr. Charles Antzelevitch, the lab’s executive director and director of research.

The lab’s staff might be international, but Antzelevitch said he’s not surprised to find talent close to home, too.

“Bright and exciting people are everywhere, so we expect some of them to be nurtured in our local environment,” he said.

Of course, the lab wasn’t always so eager to hire Betzenhauser. Back in college, he had applied for the lab’s summer fellowship program and was turned down. Instead, he spent the summer working at Steinbach in the New Hartford Shopping Center. That experience was educational, too, Betzenhauser said.

“You do get to learn how to deal with people,” he said.

Betzenhauser also learned a lot, he said, from the six years he spent as a technician at a biotechnology company and at the University of Rochester before deciding to go to graduate school. Working in industry taught him to troubleshoot, an essential skill, he said.

“If you’re a scientist, you have to be able to accept and even embrace failure,” he said.

Betzenhauser is hoping to pass on some of what he’s learned. He’s mentoring a student through the BOCES Regional Program for Excellence and overseeing one of the summer fellows.

But Betzenhauser hopes to do more to inspire the next generation of scientists. As part of his grant proposal for the microscope, Betzenhauser said he envisioned a workshop for high school and local college students on fluorescent microscopy as a research tool.
Betzenhauser wants to help kids stay curious.

“When you’re young, you’re naturally curious about the world … and somewhere along the way, it gets lost,” he said.

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