By last week, the boards above the wall-mounted shelf brackets were largely cleared of biology texts.
And by the time Wittenberg University’s new students arrive Aug. 22, Dave Mason’s office in the Barbara Deer Kuss Science Center likely will stand empty.
Mason, who has been at Wittenberg for 43 years and taught generations, at times feels like he himself is being emptied out.
“I hate not being able to teach,” he said. “All these years working with young, dynamic people ….”
But on this day, the professor has, if not an ideal student, at least a student, me.
And he’s not just ready but excited to pass on anything he can, particularly about what he loves best.
“I enjoy life forms, how it exists,” he said.
He likes them so much he seems to enjoy explaining why his 78-year-old body won’t allow him to teach any more.
While most forms of Parkinson’s make it difficult for a patient to lower his arms in a way that Mason illustrates, that’s not the case with him.
The problem for him — the reason he needs to get around with the help of a walker — involves a place in the center of the brain called the substantia nigra.
It sends nerve impulses to the cerebellum, the brain’s balancing center.
That was haywire enough last year that it caused him to fall and break a hip while vacationing in Michigan.
Still, Mason’s mind remains nimble — nimble enough that the mention of the brain reminds him I’d called to talk a bit about cancers.
Some do originate in brain or muscle cells, he said.
“But that’s rare.”
Most often, cancers are caused by malfunctions in the body’s mechanism for producing massive numbers of new cells to replace the ones that are dying off.
“You’re making millions and millions of new cells each day,” he explains.
They’re replacing worn out cells in ducts, glands, the inside of our gastrointestinal tracts — the thin linings of everything.
To make these new cells, our long strands of DNA unzip, and the body’s cell copiers go to work.
Like new copiers that can fax scan and collate, our genetic copiers, have quality control systems.
The diagnostics run first.
“You have a review systems that monitors” the process, Mason.
If it finds a mistake, some genetic problem, “it shuts the system down,” he said, “then you have a repair system that can come in and repair a few little damages.”
“The DNA may have 14-20 accidents in copying,” he said, and still be repaired and brought up to snuff.
But if it’s too far damaged, too far gone, there’s another backup, Mason explains.
“The cell kills itself. It’s called apoptosis.”
For cancer to occur, he said, two things are necessary.
There has to be damage to a so-called proto-onco (as in oncology) gene — a gene that can turn cancerous — and two, represser or regulator genes have to fail.
None of this is spoken of in a grim tone, but rather in a tone focusing on the detail of the complex process.
After this brief review, Mason reminds his new student of a fundamental truth: There will be no magic bullet for curing cancer “because cancer is a genetic mutation” and genetic mutations are at the heart of life.
“We are what we are as a life form through these alterations in the genetic code,” he said. “Through the course of time positive alternatives are coming together that put positive features together.”
But, as in other aspects of life, “accidents happen in the genetic code, and it trips the damn cell into a sense going crazy.”
Anyone who’s pulled apart a copier and ended up with toner everywhere knows how copiers can go bad.
Mason has done his part to try to fight them when they do.
He spent years working with Dr. Miguel Pedraza and others at the old Community Hospital trying to track down ways to determine the origins of a cancer that had metastasized and migrated elsewhere in the body.
“I did hundreds of cases,” he said.
The goal was to find out whether there were clues within the relocated cancer cells that would identify their source.
An electron microscope would see some things. But to detect others, it was necessary to add dyes, sometimes fluorescent dyes, to make them visible.
“We would use an antibody to glue it on,” he said, and it would light up under the scope.
To help his students understand all this, Mason put together a data disk that illustrates healthy and abnormal cells, using slides from his research.
It’s called his “Atlas of Histology.”
In addition to being informative, all the the images and text testify to how much Mason enjoyed research — that is, learning — as well as well as teaching.
In what may be one of his final one-on-one consultations with a student, he passed along a copy of the disk to me.
The simple act reminded me of the Wittenberg motto, a motto that could serve as a mantra for all educators: “Having light, we pass it on to others.”
Like so many teachers who will not return to classrooms all around our community this fall, Dave Mason will miss that.