Revered Scientist “Retires” from Duke Anesthesiology

Drs. Wei Yang, Wulf Paschen, and William Maixner.

Drs. Wei Yang, Wulf Paschen, and William Maixner.

After 13 years with Duke Anesthesiology and a 43-year career in basic science research, Wulf Paschen, PhD, has returned to his roots in Germany, where his wife and two daughters were awaiting his arrival. “I learned a lot at Duke. It’s a great atmosphere with people who are very supportive, particularly in our department, but it’s time for me to move on. I’m looking forward to spending time with my family and cooking for them,” says Paschen, who views his move not as a retirement nor a goodbye, but a transition; a handing of the baton to his mentee and friend, Dr. Wei Yang – a young scientist whom Paschen recruited to his Molecular Neurobiology Laboratory within the department and credits much of his success.

“Scientifically, this was the best time in my life,” says Paschen. “It was my dream to once in my life, have an excellent co-worker. Our projects were very innovative for the experimental stroke field. I’m extremely lucky; we were just the perfect match and are now good friends.”

“It’s not often that you see this close linkage with bi-directional intellect and enthusiasm,” adds Dr. William Maixner, the department’s vice chair for research. “This is the ideal situation.”

Dr. Wulf Paschen with Dr. Wei Yang.

Dr. Wulf Paschen with Dr. Wei Yang.

Paschen’s initial Duke connection was Dr. David Warner, who also studies experimental stroke. He was eventually recruited from the Max Planck Institutes in Germany by former Duke Anesthesiology chairman, Dr. Mark Newman. After 28 years of well-funded research there, he “hit the re-set button” and moved to Duke to finish his projects. Paschen started his own lab with the equipment he brought with him. Once he arrived, he had to learn how to navigate through the competitive National Institutes of Health (NIH) grant system, quickly realizing the skill set needed to craft an exceptional proposal to earn funding. “It was a learning process. While it may be clear in your brain, it’s not clear until you write it down,” says Paschen, who also found himself in need of an investigator in his lab; he placed an ad in which Yang responded while completing his PhD in Germany.

“It was just luck. Wei has a very strong background in molecular biology, which was not a specialty offered during my studies, but it’s what I needed to accomplish my research at Duke. He was the missing link,” says Paschen, whose particular research interest is the role of the endoplasmic reticulum in the pathological process induced by transient cerebral ischemia and culminating in neuronal cell death. Yang also became instrumental in helping Paschen shape his grant proposals; working as co-investigators, the “dream team” as they’re referred to, has been awarded a total of nine collaborative grants in anesthesiology – seven of which were NIH awards, four of them R01s. Their most recent NIH projects include “The Unfolded Protein Response and Neuroprotection in Stroke” and “Effect of Aging on Brain Ischemia/Stroke Outcome: Pathways, Mechanisms and Rescue.

“You can always trust Wulf’s data,” says Yang, who notes that he taught him to be creative and innovative, yet critical about the data to ensure that they were producing scientific knowledge. “He also established a friendly, but professional work environment for everyone – that is key for a lab to develop and be efficient.”

“Success requires that you have good personal relationships,” says Paschen. “I was always happy coming into the lab because Wei is such a pleasant person. To have a good atmosphere in the lab is very important.”

With Paschen’s departure, Yang’s new role is acting director of his mentor’s lab with a long-term goal of improving outcomes in patients who suffer from stroke or other forms of ischemic injury in the brain. “I’m excited about what’s to come and the future of our lab, because it’s still growing. I’m happy that Wulf can take a break because he’s worked very hard,” says Yang.

“Wulf exemplifies everything we would ever want in an individual and in a scientist,” adds Maixner. “Our future is going to be based on past and present; Wulf’s past has created a solid foundation for the ‘cathedral’ that often times takes several generations to make. The department and university are very appreciative for what Wulf has provided, and he now hands us a wonderful opportunity as we continue to build that ‘cathedral.’”

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