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HSC alumnus reaches goal of becoming a scientist (3-28-00)

Zachary Mackey’s interest in science began at age 7 when he was watching an uncle mix household chemicals for a school science experiment. The chemicals combusted and produced an unexpected small explosion that also ignited Mackey’s love of science that day.

Preparing to become a scientist is never easy and it was even less so for Mackey. The Southeast Side native was an avid athlete at Highlands High School and then at The University of Nebraska, where he played football and lettered in track. But academically he was less successful—graduating from Nebraska with a less-than-stellar grade point average.

Returning to San Antonio, Mackey worked at a virus reference laboratory and took refresher classes in basic science at The University of Texas at San Antonio, hoping to eventually attend graduate school and pursue his dreams of scientific research.

Shortly after he finished the refresher courses, Mackey was hired as a research assistant at the Health Science Center’s Institute of Biotechnology (IBT) in the laboratory of Barbara Christy, Ph.D., assistant professor in the Department of Molecular Medicine. Working with Dr. Christy provided Mackey with hands-on experience in basic science research and the molecular biology techniques he would need to move forward in the field.

"Just by chance, the IBT was starting its molecular medicine graduate program at that time. I wanted to give graduate school a try because although I liked the work I was doing, I wanted to advance to a higher level," Mackey said. "I didn’t want to remain a research assistant. I wanted to be the researcher."

Getting accepted to the IBT’s program was not easy. Without a high grade point average and in-depth scientific background, Mackey had to be quite persuasive, but his determination was evident to Z. Dave Sharp, Ph.D., associate professor of molecular medicine, who was the assistant director and graduate adviser for the fledgling graduate program at the time.

"I still didn’t give up," said Mackey. "I knew I could do it, so I stayed around the lab and watched what everyone was doing—what the students were studying. I stayed at the lab later and later and I learned everything I could and what it was going to take to succeed as a graduate student. Then I applied to the program and prayed and prayed."

In the fall of 1993, Mackey was accepted. He followed with doctoral research work at the IBT in the DNA repair field, studying mammalian DNA ligases with Alan Tomkinson, Ph.D., associate professor in the Department of Molecular Medicine. In 1997 Mackey was awarded the Howard Hughes Foundation Grant for Minorities in Science, totaling $22,250, and the Merck/United Negro College Fund Grant for $25,000, with an additional $15,000 for supplies to continue his research work. He has authored seven publications in peer-reviewed scientific journals, including two first author publications and one review article.

In February, Mackey became Dr. Mackey, receiving his Ph.D. in Molecular Medicine.

"The faculty members at the IBT have given me the opportunity of a lifetime," said Dr. Mackey. "The facility here is unmatched. I knew this was what I wanted and I never gave up. You have to be persistent and if there is a barrier in the way, you have to go around it or move it."

Dr. Mackey is heading for a postdoctoral fellowship at The University of California, San Francisco, and will do research work on parasite differentiation.

Contact: Will Sansom or Heather Feldman