A career built on family values, curiosity and good fortune
PhD candidate Michael V. Zuccaro shares his story

Michael Zuccaro might be a highly intelligent scientist who is making his mark in the field of gene editing, but ask him to teach a group of 30, eight to twelve-year-olds with diabetes about the pancreas and that’s when he really shines.

A 5th year PhD candidate in the lab of Dieter Egli, PhD, Zuccaro, 29, volunteered this past summer at the Berrie Summer Fun Program and immediately captured the minds and hearts of his young audience with his home-made rendition of diabetes-themed Jeopardy!

Kids have never leapt so fast to answer questions about beta cells and microscopes.

As a child, Zuccaro said he was just like the Berrie Center Summer Fun scientists-in-training—curious and eager to learn. He is the son of an incredibly hard-working Italian immigrant. His father, who fixes air conditioners, is his inspiration. “He gets up at 5am and goes to work, gets home at 6pm; he’ll have dinner, go to sleep, wake up and do it again each and every day.”

Diabetes research was never Zuccaro’s intended interest. He recounts pondering a career in teaching, in visual arts, as an executive, but not exactly science.

“What is a scientist?” he recalled asking himself. “Do they just mix solutions, make them change colors and cure cancer? It was another world, not even accessible.”

However, a series of interesting twists and turns, a couple of wonderful mentors, including Dr. Loredana Quadro at Rutgers University, and a desire to carry on his father’s diligent work ethic led Zuccaro to exactly where he never thought he would be – working in a lab. 

A scholarship to Rutgers University opened a new world of possibilities. Curiosity and a casual suggestion led him to the biotechnology program, which led to undergraduate research in the food science department studying fetal-maternal retinoid metabolism in mice, and then to his A-Ha moment: a career in science could be in the cards.

“It felt like you were investigating and putting together a story,” he said.

From that moment, Zuccaro only looked forward. He received his Masters degree in business and science, and realized that with a PhD he could not only conduct research, but direct research. Early on in Zuccaro’s PhD program in Cellular Physiology & Biophysics at Columbia University, Dr. Egli fortuitously walked into his classroom and delivered a lecture on diabetes that would change everything for him.

“I was blown away by his research,” Zuccaro said. “He was literally taking a patient’s stem cells, turning them into pancreas cells and (hopefully) putting them back into the patient. To be able to do something like that is just really inspiring and I knew I wanted to be a part of that research.” 

Zuccaro immediately approached Dr. Egli after class, and thus began his journey in the world of CRISPR, stem cells and tissue cultures. “You just go into it, and you just go forward and you learn it,” he said about starting his first diabetes-related project almost four years ago. Zuccaro has since been involved in several projects investigating gene candidates that may play a role in developing type 2 diabetes and maturity onset diabetes of the young (MODY).

His mentor, Dieter Egli, PhD, is enthusiastic about the potential stem cells hold for treating diabetes and the work Zuccaro is doing.

“Pluripotent stem cells have the ability to become any cell type, such as pancreatic beta cells," Dr. Egli said. "By better understanding and characterizing these cells, we can improve differentiation efficiencies and create safe, effective cell replacement therapies."  

Zuccaro is also diligently working on his thesis, studying the mechanism of diploidization in haploid stem cells.

To explain, human cells are diploid (meaning they have two sets of chromosomes in a cell, one set from each parent). Sperm and eggs are haploid (meaning they have one set of chromosomes).

“I am studying the mechanism of how and why haploid cells are becoming diploid and seeing if there are some clues related to genetic instability with that,” he said. "Understanding more about these haploid cells may provide insights into reproduction, development, as well as to diseases like cancer and certain neurodegenerative diseases.”

Zuccaro hopes his findings will be a great tool for research. “Theoretically this research should make it easier to do things like functional genomics such as gene editing and CRISPR, which we are also using routinely in our experiments investigating diabetes.”

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