“Surprisingly, each cell in the human body has got a clock in it – a circadian clock,” says Horst Wallrabe. “There’s also a master clock in our brain.”
In fact every living thing, including plants, has these timing mechanisms, which have developed through evolution to help our bodies coordinate all sorts of essential activities. They govern eating, sleeping and reproduction. They determine when we will be at our quickest and strongest, and when it is best to sleep. They regulate when we go to the bathroom.
‘A very intricate system’
They are “attuned to the rising sun and the waning sun,” Horst says, and we ignore or interfere with them – eating at the wrong time of day or looking at bright screens in the evening when our brains should be preparing for rest – at our peril. “Disturbed synchrony between the internal & external environment leads to pathological conditions or worse,” says Horst.
“It’s a very intricate system, which most people don’t know about,” he says. “It’s why cancer treatments are more effective given at a certain time of day, and so on and so on” affecting everything about our lives.
Horst is fascinated by what is called Circadian Rhythm, and he communicated that fascination to fellow residents at Westminster-Canterbury of the Blue Ridge in a recent Westminster Institute of Lifelong Learning (WILL) lecture, which can still be viewed on the Web, here: https://vimeo.com/475621185/7bb9fa5489
Many WILL lecturers draw their subject matter from their careers before retirement. Not so with Horst Wallrabe. He had an illustrious career in the pharmaceutical industry, but it didn’t have to do with the science. He was on the administrative side, he says almost apologetically. “My job was basically running the company.” Truth is, he did that on a very high level: He was president of Bayer USA, based in West Haven, Conn. Under his leadership, Bayer introduced a number of prescription medicines in the cardiovascular and dermatology fields: one highlight of his career was developing the powerful antibiotic ciprofloxacin and winning FDA approval for it.
Learning all about life at the cellular level
But he wanted to know more about the other side. He longed to get into the science. So when he retired at 60, “I went to find out about the science at the cellular level.” He did this by studying at the University of Virginia. This wasn’t just a way to pass the time for him. He really, really got into it. As UVA Today reported in a profile about him in early 2017:
For more than 18 years now, he has satisfied his curiosity as a full-time volunteer staff researcher in UVA’s biology department and at UVA’s Keck Center for Cellular Imaging. There he plays a significant role in helping UVA scientists make important discoveries into how cells communicate with each other and multiply. The center’s high-tech microscopy allows high-resolution visualizations of the inner workings of cells important to the understanding and control of multiple diseases, from Alzheimer’s to diabetes and cancer.
He works hard at it, often putting in more time than paid staff at the Keck Center. He has been the lead author or co-author of 15 journal articles and 18 book chapters and conference proceedings.
A ‘citizen scholar’
He calls himself a “citizen scholar,” as opposed to a more conventional academic.
And he enjoys sharing what he learns with his fellow WCBR residents. His talk on Circadian Rhythm is just the most recent of several topics he has covered, including identical twins (he and his wife Niqui have twin sons), “How to promote healthy aging,” and “Obesity: How did we become the ‘Fat Primate?’”
“I’m acting like a kind of science reporter,” he says – learning everything he can about cellular biology, and sharing what he learns. And his fellow residents are the beneficiaries.