When you call Aaron Hieb on the phone, check the time zone. That's because he's eight hours ahead of Mountain Standard Time — in Germany.
Hieb, a 2000 graduate of Montana Tech in chemistry, is working at the German Cancer Research Center (DKFZ) cancer research firm in Heidelberg.
And when he moved there, the Glendive native didn't speak a lick of German.
"My wife, Michaela, is Czech, and we wanted to be close to her family. I looked around for a lab that specializes in my research and found this one, one of the few in the world." (see research summary).
But it's not all hard work and complicated research. Hieb had lots of fun giving chemistry demonstrations to high school students as part of Tech's chemistry club.
"I remember setting off the sprinklers at Butte High once. I think it was the flaming gummy worm demonstration," he said.
Chemistry has come naturally to Hieb and he credits his parents, Janet and Ralph, for that.
"I graduated from Dawson County High School in Glendive in 1996. Both my parents were good at math; my mom, worked at banks and credit unions and my dad, worked for the railroad and was creative at modifying equipment." "I didn't like cracking the books. But at Tech, you get individual instruction and labs, so that was a great advantage.
Q. How did you choose your area of study?
A. I became interested in chemistry during my last two years of high school, where I found I had a knack for understanding the concepts as well as performing lab work. During my time at Tech I found that I excelled in chemistry and had many opportunities to explore multiple avenues. With the broad knowledge I gained at Tech — plus a summer internship — and my graduate work, I have come to a point where I am doing multidisciplinary research where I mix biology, chemistry, physics and mathematics toward understanding biochemical questions.
Q. Why did you choose Montana Tech over other schools?
Q. What is your proudest moment in your career?
A. Earning my Ph.D. and having my family share in the moment when I defended it.
Q. What goals did you accomplish or project of which you are most proud?
A. I was able to formulate and guide my own research project as a graduate student, which led to a new line of research and funding for my adviser.
I really liked my own freedom to do research on this project.
Also, moving to Germany to where neither my wife nor I spoke the language and overcoming the many difficulties and obstacles associated with the move. It was enlightening and humbling. It's interesting to come over here with a Norwegian and German heritage. My family roots are located less than an hour from here.
I hope to start my own research lab one day, building upon the research I am currently conducting. I have a year left, and then I will decide what to do next. We will probably go back to the states after this job ends.
Q. Tell us about some memorable college experience, either how it applies to your work today or just something that was fun for you at Tech.
A. I became involved in the chemistry club my third year at Tech, which was basically nonexistent at the time. Together with a handful of other students and the aid of the faculty we expanded to nearly 30 members crossing many degree fields. In this time our club gave numerous chemistry demonstrations to thousands of children and high school students throughout Montana in less than two years. These were both fun and good practical experience for me. From this experience I learned a lot about how to teach and give public speeches, which at the time I was not very comfortable doing. With this experience I was able to conduct classes and give research seminars with confidence.
Q. Who is a favorite hero to you, mentor, public, private and why?
A. My grandfather Russell. I had unfortunately never met my grandfather as he passed before I was born. He grew up in Glendive and Richey.
He survived as the youngest in a large basically single-parent family on a homestead in Eastern Montana. Then he left to fight a war at the age of 17, where he performed a selfless heroic deed by pulling men out of fiery water on the wing of his plane (of which he never spoke). Despite his meager upbringings he was able to raise a family and send his children to college, an amazing turnaround in life. He is my hero because I am grateful I will never have to feel the hardships he went through, and I am only where I am today because of the sacrifices he made and the work ethic he instilled within my family.
Q. How did Tech serve you in your past, current or even potential, future jobs? Give us some examples.
A. By going to Tech I was also able to become very close with the chemistry faculty, and was able to do such things as undergraduate research, chemistry club, and simple one-on-one chats that helped me understand more about my studies as well as life. I was fortunate to perform two years of undergraduate research for Doug Cameron, where I learned a lot about what "real" research is. Another plus is it gave me an advantage when applying to graduate schools as my letters of reference, good, honest letters of reference, compared to larger universities where a faculty member has no idea whom you are.
Q. How do you stay connected to Tech?
A. I keep in relatively frequent e-mail contact with the chemistry department. I keep tabs on how the football team is doing and read both MNews and the yearly chemistry department newsletter.
Q. What advice would you give high school students who are considering entering college?
A. Most successful students have attended the smaller universities; at least the ones I've met in graduate programs. So, going to smaller schools has a great advantage.
Current address: Goethestrasse 62, 69221 Dossenheim, Deutschland, Europe
Job title and company you work for: Staff Research Scientist for German Cancer Research Institute (DKFZ).
Brief Work history: October 2006-present DKFZ 2000-2006 University of Colorado
Personal data: Spouse: Michaela — Ostrava, Czech Republic Daughter: Klara — 6 months
When did you attend Tech? 1996-2000 B.S. — Chemistry, 2000 Montana Tech Ph.D. — Chemistry, 2006 University of Colorado at Boulder
Research summary: Hieb's research looks at how and why genes on our DNA are turned on or off.The simple dogma of biochemistry is that DNA retains genetic information. This information is passed to a carrier called messenger RNA. This RNA is then in turn coded into proteins, which do the majority of work within our bodies.
Hieb works on understanding the methods of how the body makes RNA. This is important, because genes that are turned on or off when they shouldn't lead to many of known diseases and cancers. You can basically think of each gene as a tiny factory made of nano-machines of various sizes and workers shuffling information in and out.
Hieb gets to work with these machines in the test tube and try to understand how they function, basically reverse engineering of how the body works. To do this, he is using cutting edge technology to observe single, individual molecules/machines at work. It is important that we observe single molecules because normal biochemical experiments rely on information from trillions or more molecules with the results giving an average of all these molecules. The problem with observing by this method is that there might be important events or molecules that are hidden.
Think for example of Mile High stadium filled with people watching a Broncos game. From the Goodyear blimp you might think everyone is wearing orange and blue, and therefore everyone at the game is rooting for the Broncos. When in fact, if you were to use a zoom lens and look at individual people you would see that there are other colors, likely cheering for the opposing team.
You could even look further and find the correlation that indeed those wearing orange and blue do cheer when the Broncos score and say Black cheers when the Raiders score.
Molecules work in the same way. So, by observing single molecules we get all the information from one experiment that might take many "bulk" experiments, or never find at all.
To do this, Hieb has designed and constructed a state-of-the-art microscope that can view these molecules in real time with the aid of other light emitting molecules, called fluorophores.
Ultimately, the information he obtains could be used to design therapeutic drugs, gain further understanding into what causes specific diseases, and help in early detection and screening for cancer and other biological disorders.