What Birmingham’s Dr. Steven Austad is learning about longevity from ancient creatures – Bham Now

UABs Dr. Steven Austad. Photo via Steven Austad

Birmingham is filled with fascinating people, and I love that part of my job is to help share their stories with you. Dr. Steven Austad is Distinguished Professor and Department Chair in the Department of Biology at UABs College of Arts and Sciences and one of the most fascinating people Ive had a chance to talk

I trained big cats for the movie industry for several years. I had no experience at it when I started, but my bossmovie producer Noel Marshallhad hired a couple of experienced trainers from whom I learned. For most of the first year, I worked with younger animals that he was raising at his house.

I had had a childhood crush on his wife, actress Tippi Hedren, so when he told me that I would be living in his house with Tippi, he sold me on the job. I worked on movies, television shows and commercials.

Occasionally, I would be a stunt double for an actress (unlike most of the big cat trainers, I was not too stocky to pull it off) who was supposed to be attacked by a lion or tiger. My favorite was being a stunt double for Lindsey Waggoner, The Bionic Woman.

I loved working with the animals, especially lions, as they are affectionate, almost like dogs. I may have never done anything I liked as much.

However, I did not enjoy working on movie sets. Typically the actors and directors had no feel for working with animals, plus I found movie people quite boring. The clich is rightall they talk and think about is movies and movie deals.

The journalism probably helped me more than anything. I learned to write clearly and concisely which has helped in science as well. It taught me to write about science in a way that lay people can understand and is no doubt why Ive written so much for the lay public in addition to the scientific writing that I have to do.

I like to think that driving a taxi (nights, New York City) helped teach me about human nature. I think I saw people at pretty much all their best and all their worst during that time. Those experiences gave me some perspective beyond what I think most academics have.

What has always been most fascinating to me is unsolved puzzles. The puzzle that got me into aging research was why do animals like us age at all? If a living organism can almost be defined as something that is capable of self-repair, why does that self-repair ultimately fail so that we age?

In that vein, the ocean quahog (a giant clam pronounced KOH-HOG), which lives more than 500 years, and hydra, which lives virtually indefinitely interest me because they have pretty much solved the problem of aging. I want to know how they do that so we may use that knowledge to keep people healthier longer.

Interestingly, I have learned something from the quahog that could ultimately help us treat or prevent neurological diseases like Alzheimers and Parkinsons disease.

The irony is that the quahog doesnt ever have a brain. Specifically, those diseases are due to clumps of proteins that should not be clumped together. The quahog has something in its tissue that prevents protein clumping.

Maybe you should ask whether it keeps my interest or whether I just keep doing it because thats what Ive been doing for the past 35 years. In reality, I am more excited about my own research and about aging research in general than ever before.

We are on the brink of major breakthroughs into prolonging human health that will change our lives more dramatically than anything since the development of antibiotics.

Touch call. Birmingham has an amazing food scene. Hot & Hot Fish Club is probably my favorite.

Although Im primarily a wine person, my favorite is probably Good People. Great location, right across from Regions Field. Fine ambience, diverse selection of beers.

Probably the woods behind my house. They go on for miles. I live in the country, near Morris, and during our forced lockdown because of COVID-19, Ive been spending a lot of time in the woods. I feel like I know almost every tree, shrub and wildflower by now.

Im a sports fanatic, especially baseball. Favorite team iseasy callthe Boston Red Sox. I lived in Boston during the years when the Red Sox had not won a World Series in more than 80 years.

I really enjoy the McWane Science Center. It is a science center for both kids and adults. It is a real local treasure which I hope people appreciate.

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What Birmingham's Dr. Steven Austad is learning about longevity from ancient creatures - Bham Now

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