Page Menu

Biochemistry and Molecular Biotechnology Blog

Tony Carruthers

Tuesday, October 03, 2023

Each month the BMB Department will feature a department member's unique story.

This month, Haley interviewed Dr. Tony Carruthers, one of our distinguished emeritus faculty. Please take the time to read about what he brings to our department.

Where did you grow up?

I grew up in Carlisle, which is a town in the north of England, just south of the Scottish border. I was born into an old Victorian slum with no running hot water or inside bathrooms, and my parents were pretty poor. Despite that, I had a very happy childhood (although I didn’t know it at the time). I was very lucky in that my parents understood the importance of education as a means of escaping poverty, so they encouraged me to be a good student, and now here I am.

What was your path to becoming faculty and a biomedical researcher?

In a strange way, my path to science began very early. Because my parents didn’t have much by way of income, I started making playthings for myself when I was very small. My dad would get from work and find that something in the house no longer worked because I had taken it apart and nicked some pieces to make myself a toy. I’ve always been interested in trying to figure out how things work, and my parents encouraged that by saving up really hard to buy me things like those really cheap microscopes you can get in the toy store for Christmas and such.

Additionally, my older brother had a learning disability, so my parents had purchased a ten-volume set of encyclopedias that covered pretty much everything (with a focus on the British Empire, of course). I read them all cover-to-cover and I knew everything in there.

So by the time I to take what was called the Eleven Plus Exam, which determined whether you got into grammar school or not, I was pretty well-prepared. I scraped into grammar school by the skin of my teeth, but I loved the whole experience – I played rugby and cricket, and my best subject was German.

At the end of grammar school, I took my A Level Exams and did well enough to get into college. I went to Manchester University, where I focused on physiology. We had a tutoring system where every week during your second year you would go in and speak with a faculty member tutor, and that’s where I really learned how to think critically. In my third year, I participated in two major research projects, and that’s when I fell in love with glucose transport. Most of the other content like circulation, respiration, etc I could easily understand, but the mechanisms of transport seemed so complicated. I was attracted to transport because it challenged me. I did lots of experiments with rats during this time, but the most important thing I learned was that I loved doing research. In my final year of school I asked if I might stay on to do a PhD, and they said “Yes of course you can, but we recommend you go to a better school than this,” so upon their recommendation I contacted Peter Baker at Kings College London who was working on giant squid axons. He accepted me into his research group and told me to meet him at the marine research station in Plymouth. While we were there, he taught me how to dissect axons, and then he essentially told me to study sugar transport and then left. I didn’t know how to do anything! I couldn’t make solutions, I didn’t know how much radioactive tracer to add to things… luckily, everyone at the research station helped me out and showed me how to do things. I loved it, it was the most exciting time of my life! I worked really hard with terrible hours – the fresh catches of squid would come in from the docks around 4pm, and then we’d work on the fresh samples until 3am, and then we’d get up early to analyze our results and make the plan for the next day’s catch. It was incredibly exciting, and I had to learn how to think on my feet because if I saw unexpected results, I had to run and make new solutions on the fly. Even though there were tough times, I look back on it as one of the most exciting times of my career. I knew there and then this was going to be my life. I also met my wife Lorraine during my second year at Plymouth (the squid changed their feeding grounds, so I was spending a lot of time hanging around in pubs).

For many reasons, we decided to move on the United States for the next phase of my career. After a bad interview elsewhere, I wrote to UMass and told them that I was the greatest thing since sliced bread, and they’d be an idiot if they didn’t hire me. Whoever I actually wrote to referred me to Donald Melchior to do a postdoc studying the effects of membrane lipid composition on glucose transport. I managed to get three fellowships in my first year and accepted two of them (one from the NSF, the other from the NIH). Eventually I was promoted to assistant professor and went on from there – I never looked back. 

Why did you choose UMass?

I was initially drawn to UMass because I liked the work that Mike Czech’s lab was doing looking at how glucose transport was stimulated. Initially, I didn’t plan to stay here – I had a readership waiting for me back in London, so the plan was to come here for only two years. However, my research went so well and my income went up so much (we didn’t make much in London, and eventually I got a NATO fellowship and at the time the exchange rate between Britain and America was quite favorable AND simultaneously there was a treaty that made it so I didn’t have to pay taxes, so our lifestyle changed drastically), I said to hell with this, we’re going to stay. Overall, our lifestyle in this country was so much better. Americans – you’re so generous and kind in spite of everything you hear. And in this country, in my experience, if you have access to education, it is very much still a land of opportunity.

What setbacks have you faced in your career that you’d be willing to share with us?

The biggest mistake I made in my career was becoming too interested in departmental politics. If I could give advice to postdocs and junior faculty, it would be this: focus on your work, let the gossips do whatever they want, and only get involved if it directly affects you.

There was another big faux pas I made – I’ve never been great at notekeep despite the profession I chose. One of my best papers was entirely theoretical, in which I compared two models for glucose transport with complex kinetic derivations. The reviewers were very keen on the paper, but they wanted to see some of the background proofs of what I’d done. In those days, whenever I finished writing a paper or a grant, I would throw out my scrap work…so I had to sit down and rederive my proofs and my theories…in a sense it was good because it proved to me I had been right the first time, but from that point on I started using hard-bound notebooks.

What would you do if you never had to work again?

Well, that’s essentially where I’m at in my career now. Retirement is great! Since I’ve retired, I don’t know how I ever had the time to go to work! After I retired, we moved to New Hampshire in the White Mountains. It is one of the most beautiful places in the world, and once I hit my 65th birthday, skiing became free at this one mountain and cheaper at all the others, so I could ski my legs off. Really, I enjoy a lot of expensive white man sports, like skiing and golfing. I’m awful at both but I like it because of the people. My wife and I enjoy hiking enormously, so we did that quite a lot in New Hampshire, but eventually we got tired of the winters and would travel a lot. During COVID when all that was put to a stop, we did outdoor activities like snowshoeing and hiking. I also play the guitar, but not very well – like most things I do (including my science) I would say I am okay but not great. Now that we can travel again, we are going at it with a good bit of vigor. My wife and I are trying to see as much of the world as we can while we’re still able to do so – I have no illusions about what aging does to a person.

What is your favorite kitchen utensil?

Hmm…this might not be my favorite per se but it is certainly the most useful – a small paring knife or oyster shucking knife. I use that for almost all my cutting. But my favorite utensil would have to be an ice cream scoop. I love ice cream, and since I’m getting much more exercise in my retirement, an ice cream at the end of the day is a really nice thing to have.