Photo by Todd McNaught
It's a long way from Atlanta to Seattle, but Dr. David Cooke is helping to shrink the distance and enhance Fred Hutchinson's ability to attract a diverse scientific staff.
Cooke, professor and chairman of the biology department at Morehouse College, is spending two months this summer at Fred Hutchinson. Working out of the Trask Lab in the Human Biology Division, Cooke is enjoying the opportunity to escape the administrative responsibilities of his job at Morehouse and focus strictly on science. "The two months is going by like bam!" he said, snapping his fingers. "I'm more than halfway through it already."
Even so, the change of pace is not what Cooke welcomes most. What's truly special about his visit are the connections he is creating with center staff on behalf of students at Morehouse, an all-male undergraduate institution and one of the nation's top historically black colleges.
"Hopefully, my experience here can create momentum for the center to look at some of our students and for our students to look at the center and at the University of Washington for their graduate and post-graduate work," Cooke said.
Cooke's stay is an example of the center's ongoing efforts to reach out to segments of the population that are underrepresented in the fields of science and medicine. In Cooke's case, a supplement to the center's core grant from the National Cancer Institute known as CURE (Continuing Umbrella of Research Experiences) supports the effort.
"We want to expand our connections with institutions that serve minority students," said Dr. Barry Stoddard, an investigator in the Basic Sciences Division who directs the grant. "Dr. Cooke is exactly the kind of person we want to work with. He's a mentor to a large number of students and we're just delighted to have him here."
Cooke is equally delighted to be at the center. "It's important for me to spend time in an environment like this," he said. "It gives people here a chance to get comfortable with me and for us to develop relationships so that if I pick up the phone and call about any of my students, they'll at least have a point of reference after having been around me for a couple of months."
If Cooke does call, Trask and others at the center will be more than happy to listen. "I hope that he will feel comfortable encouraging bright and talented students from Morehouse to take up careers in research and, more specifically, to consider coming to Fred Hutchinson for part of their training," she said. "This connection has the potential to increase participation of minorities in research, which is an important goal of the center as well as the nation's research community."
Relationships like the one Cooke is establishing with Fred Hutchinson were just beginning to take root when Cooke was pursuing his education. He was among the first wave of black students accepted into the Duke University Medical School as well as the Lineberger Cancer Research Center at the University of North Carolina.
"I've been very fortunate," he said of the opportunities that came his way. "I've never looked at the glass as half empty. Always half full."
Cooke, 57, has been at Morehouse for 16 years and couldn't be happier with his job. "I've never had a bad day coming to work," he said. Nevertheless, there was a time when an academic career was the farthest thing from his mind. The son of a doctor, Cooke grew up in Durham, N.C., wanting to follow in his father's footsteps. "I worshipped the ground he walked on," he said.
Cooke graduated from North Carolina Central University with bachelor's and master's degrees in biology. Then came medical school and a sobering discovery. He didn't really want to be a doctor after all.
As a boy, Cooke frequently accompanied his father on house calls. He was often allowed to watch and listen but only until it came time to actually deliver whatever medical care was required. Then he was always asked to leave the room.
Years later at medical school, Cooke realized that what he'd observed, absorbed and admired during those house calls with his father were his father's tremendous people skills. He really hadn't witnessed, understood or appreciated what it took to actually practice medicine.
"I realized I didn't enjoy the clinical aspect of medicine," Cooke said. So, despite feeling a certain duty as one of Duke's first black medical students, he quit after two years.
Not knowing what he wanted out of life, Cooke "did a lot of different things" for the next couple of years. Then he got a call that changed his life. St. Augustine College in Raleigh, N.C. was in immediate need of someone to teach comparative anatomy and one of his former Duke professors had recommended him. Would he be interested?
Cooke said yes and from the moment he stepped into the classroom he's never again questioned his calling. "It was if somebody took a big bucket of red paint and wrote on the wall, 'DAVID COOKE, THIS IS YOU!'" he said.
Pursuit of passions
Cooke spent three years at St. Augustine before leaving to earn a Ph.D in physiology at Howard University and then conduct postdoctoral work at the Lineberger Cancer Research Center. From there he went to Morehouse.
While the practice of medicine turned Cooke off, the science of medicine ? especially physiology ? turns him on. "From a selfish standpoint, it's cool to have an understanding of how the body works," he said. "And to be able to stand in front of others and explain that is very satisfying."
Cooke also enjoys maintaining a lab at Morehouse where he focuses on prostate- cancer research. During his time at the center, Cooke has been involved with a project led by Ilona Holcomb that focuses on chromosomal abnormalities in prostate cancer.
Outside of work, he has two other passions ? jazz music and pool. Cooke "messes around" with a standup bass and shoots competitive pool two or three times a week.
As for his instinctive attraction to teaching, it has a lot to do with the values he learned on those house calls with his father. "The most important endeavor is being able to do something for someone else," Cooke said. "And the more you reach out to and for others, the more is going to come back to you."