Frank von Hippel's lab at the University of Alaska Anchorage looks more like the section of the pet store where they sell guppies than a place where groundbreaking research on the endocrine system is taking place.
The air is warm and moist and smells earthy.
Fish tanks with green algae stack the shelves.
On one bottom shelf, a foot-long pike named Miss Scarlet watches passers-by.
But the lab, tucked in an unassuming building that could easily be mistaken for a maintenance shop, is where von Hippel, an evolutionary biologist, has been pursuing nationally regarded research on the endocrine system of the three-spined stickleback, a three-inch fish that could hold in its biology keys to how ingested chemical contaminants are affecting people.
This month, von Hippel and colleagues received the first installment of a prestigious $2.8 million grant from the National Institutes of Health to continue their work on a chemical called perchlorate for another five years.
Perchlorate is an unregulated additive found in road flares, fireworks and vehicle air bags and other consumer products. It is also heavily used in rockets and artillery. Most Americans have some trace of it in their bodies from drinking tainted groundwater or eating vegetables or fruits that picked it up through irrigation, von Hippel said.
The grant is considered a boon not only for UAA, which is working to lift itself from its community-college roots, but for any research university.
"We've sort of arrived now, at least with respect to our competitiveness, at least with this faculty member," said UAA's associate dean Kim Peterson. "It's really quite a good thing."
Von Hippel, 43, comes from a well-known Anchorage family. His mother was a pediatrician, while his father, Arndt von Hippel, was Alaska's first heart surgeon. Arndt von Hippel also ran for the Legislature in 1986 and lost the Republican primary after a contentious battle. He later sued Veco Corp. and owner Bill Allen for allegedly laundering campaign donations to aid his opponent. (Allen was recently convicted of bribing legislators, and Veco was sold.)
After graduating from East High School, Frank von Hippel went to Dartmouth College, got his Ph.D. from the University of California Berkeley and taught at Columbia University.
He returned home because he loves Anchorage, he said.
"It's wonderful to have someone like Frank come home. To have one of our best and brightest come back," said UAA provost Mike Driscoll, who called von Hippel one of the smartest people he's ever met.
Peterson said he's one of UAA's top researchers because "of his scientific competence, his genius, really."
Von Hippel's interests are diverse from studying primates in Kenya to studying the effect of Viagra sales on curbing trade in endangered species coveted as aphrodisiacs. He teaches around the world when he can. In the fall, he's taking his wife and three young children to Argentina for a three-month teaching gig.
Driscoll put it this way: "Frank is just so remarkably productive."
Von Hippel is soft-spoken, wears glasses and has short gray hair. He's fit -- maybe from all the biking he does around the trails near the university. He and colleague Loren Buck, a UAA endocrinologist with whom he received the NIH grant, often bounce scientific ideas back and forth while riding in the Campbell Track and on the Hillside.
The NIH grant pairs von Hippel with Buck, University of Alaska Fairbanks professor Todd O'Hara, and professors John Postlethwait and William Cresko from the University of Oregon.
In von Hippel's lab recently, graduate student Christoff "Buck" Furin sat in front of a microscope and computer screen examining a slide of cells. Furin pointed to the pink and purple splotches on the screen that represented the fish's gonads. He was looking for evidence of hermaphroditism.
Von Hippel is eager to show off Furin's work. Colleagues say this is typical. He's a good teacher who likes to give credit to his students, they say.
Von Hippel's groundbreaking research on perchlorate began eight years ago. In earlier work, he and his colleagues and grad students found that perchlorate-exposed female sticklebacks produce sperm. The NIH-funded work will look at just how that is happening. They hope to better understand why humans are seeing a surge in reproductive diseases, including low sperm counts, babies born with ambiguous genitalia and problematic hormone systems.
Alaska has never had a comprehensive test of the presence of perchlorate but the compound was found in the groundwater of 36 states in the Lower 48, von Hippel said.
Von Hippel seems like the type to never raise his voice. But he is not shy about blaming the military for not cleaning up the chemical all over the country, including Alaska. He's hoping that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency under the Obama administration takes action to start regulating perchlorate.
Buck says von Hippel's strength is his fearlessness. "He's not threatened by challenges," he said.
Von Hippel is more humble. "When I think of something, I have to pursue it."
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