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Jose Regino Perez-Polo
Cornell Engineer, Biophysicist- But Humanitarian First!

By Carol Bender

Jose Regino Perez-Polo

"At the end of the day" Regino Perez-Polo can say he spent his life serving humanity.
After speaking with Regino about his life and work I was left wondering where he finds the time to fit in all that he does each day.

His story in America begins in 1960 when he and his family left Cuba to settle in Miami. He then attended a private high school, the experimental Windson Mt. School run by émigrés from Nazi Germany and Communist Eastern Europe in Lenox, Massachussets, as a prelude to enrolling in the College of Engineering, Cornell – class of 1965 on a scholarship. He earned his Bachelors and Masters Degrees in Engineering at Cornell, but realized that Engineering wasn’t what most piqued his interest.

While at Cornell, Regino did volunteer work at Willard Straight Hospital for the mentally retarded. Seeking an active social life, he decided that volunteering was a great way to meet girls who would also be working there. He enjoyed teaching the residents and was struck by the glow in their eyes as he worked with them. Thus was born his interest in the brain and how it functioned.

With Students from France, Germany

Somewhere in the recesses of my mind I know that academicians are supposed to do research. But nothing prepared me for the vast scope or importance of Regino’s research and activities.

Regino is working on several problems. One field of research deals with the problem of minimizing brain cell injury from closed head trauma – an urgent issue affecting our soldiers and civilians. Even an "innocuous" fall in the bathtub or on the ice can lead to serious permanent brain damage. It is estimated that 130,000 – 350,000 young men and women will return from combat with this injury. To call them "Traumatic Brain Injuries" often doesn't begin to describe the changes in peoples' personalities. These changes may be mild affecting the ability to lead a "normal" life or be so severe that the injured person can’t even be a minimally functioning spouse, parent, son, daughter. At the molecular level Regino studies ways to reduce brain inflammation (tissue swelling and injury in a closed space – the skull - causing pressure on healthy cells "crushing" additional brain cell to death). Rather than having to use steroids he is trying to find decoys to reduce the inflammatory response to injury at the molecular level. Regino has secured a large number of government (our tax dollars put to good use) and private grants for his research.

Symposium at the Breakers

At the other end of the spectrum of life – birth, Regino is researching several problems affecting the newborn. This research is exploring ways to minimize or prevent brain injury and other damage for low birth weight infants (premature babies). Add research for the pain of spinal cord injuries, research for the treatment of burns including studies using fetal membrane tissue to cover open wounds, studies on the effects of aging on the molecular response to stress, cell death mechanisms, and more – all at the molecular level (gene transfer/DNA level) and you get some idea of Regino’s "day job" for the past 30 plus years.

That’s only the beginning – chair, consultant, and participant of world conferences, committees, international institutes and societies, NATO committees, and invited lecturer with the world as his stage – from Mexico, to France, Germany, Italy, Russia and other venues for over 25 years. Throw in all the myriad of "in house" commitments that a faculty chairmanship requires and prolific amounts of research publications. In addition he is editor of the International Journal of Developmental Neuroscience.

Lab Xmas Party

Of particular pride to Regino is many years of work worldwide mentoring young men and women - particularly third world countries, to encourage new scientists, harnessing scientific minds that might otherwise go untapped. He works with others in Australia, Eastern and Western Europe, (Bulgaria, Estonia, Hungary, East Germany), Central America, South America, Asia, and Latin America. This is done through summer and other programs.

Is that it? No. His home was destroyed September 13 last year by Hurricane Ike and then vandalized. He and his wife of 34 years Karin Werrbach-Perez (he did manage to meet women) are living in the house and supervising the restoration. In addition Karin runs his lab. On the social front Regino and his wife enjoy his two daughters (from his first marriage) and seven grandchildren. He also stays in contact with friends form Cornell.

Lab pictures

I will conclude as I started: "At the end of the day" Regino Perez-Polo can say he spent his life serving humanity.

Cornell and the Class of ’65 are honored to count you among its graduates!