Meet the Expert: Dr. Don Burgess
March 29, 2016
When Asbury University alumni return to campus for Reunion, one of the things they say goes something like, “When I came to class, I knew I wasn’t just another student to my professor. He knew me, he challenged me, and I’m better at what I do now because he knew what he was talking about.” In an ongoing Web series, Asbury will feature just a few of the faculty at Asbury who are making a difference in both their subject areas and their classrooms.
When you look at it from a scientific perspective, Dr. Don Burgess, a professor in Asbury University’s Natural Sciences department, helps to heal broken hearts.
His research, conducted in partnership with scientists and doctors at major research universities and hospitals around the world, is focused on teasing out the genetic and molecular origins of certain types of syndromes that can cause cardiac arrhythmias. It’s a tricky challenge with high stakes: medications that mitigate one type of arrhythmia can exacerbate another, and some arrhythmias are triggered by exercise while others are triggered during sleep. This means that knowing exactly what the medications do — down to the molecular level — is essential.
Burgess’ role in the research is to take the data gathered by physiologists and use computational skills to interpret the data. The interplay of physics, chemistry, biology and mathematics makes coming up with helpful models challenging, but his participation in the research holds benefits for Asbury students, as well as the cardiac patients involved.
“Scholarship is foundational to being a professor,” he continued. “My main goal is to challenge students to develop problem-solving skills and to think for themselves. How can I challenge students to solve problems if I am not struggling with my own research problems? Moreover, the research involves the application of physics to biology and is directly related to the courses I teach. For example understanding the dynamics of a cardiac myocyte action potential is directly related to the operation of circuits in introductory physics.”
At Asbury, the heart is more likely to be a subject of conversation in the context of theology or perhaps literature, rather then the Journal of Membrane Biology or Biophysical Journal (two of Burgess’ most recent publishing credits). However, there is a sense in which different conceptions of the heart — the center of intellectual, moral and emotional activity, and the physical organ — all ring true. In the words of Solomon, after all, we are to “above all else, guard your heart, for it is the wellspring of life” (Prov. 4:13).
“I see my research more as a service,” Burgess said. “Scientifically, I’m helping the physiologist understand his work, and it’s being a part of a project that helps improve medicine. Someone with these arrhythmias has a reduced quality of life.
“The research improves my appreciation for medicine and how remarkable it is that it works. It’s remarkable that a cell works, that the heart can contract. Our health is remarkable.”
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To learn more about Asbury’s Natural Sciences Department, visit: asbury.edu/science