Imre Kovesdi

B.A.Sc. Electrical Engineering, UBC, 1975

Ph.D. Molecular Biology, SFU, 1984

Sr. Vice President & Chief Scientific Officer, DNAtrix, Inc. Houston, Texas

President, KILA Consultants, LLC., Rockville, Maryland

 

Biography 

I left my native Hungary at age 21 and arrived in Vancouver on a rainy day (it continued to rain for 2 more months). Although I was an electrician, I could not find a job, so I applied myself to learning English. After that,  I enrolled in Vancouver Community College and transferred, a year later to UBC where I eventually received a degree in electrical engineering.

After working for a few years I realized that my calling was in biology so I started taking night classes.  I eventually enrolled in SFU's PhD program in molecular biology. I studied the starfish which allowed me the exciting opportunity to learn to scuba dive.

After completing my PhD,  I was fortunate enough to be accepted as a postdoctoral fellow at The Rockefeller University in New York. While studying adenovirus transcription, I discovered the transcription factor E2F regulating cell cycle and adenovirus replication. Publications of this discovery helped me to get a job as a scientist at the pharmaceutical company, American Cyanamid, which is today a part of Pfizer.

At American Cyanamid, I headed the Gene Expression group for 6 years and worked on new drugs to combat HIV infection. In 1993 I was approached by Genentech and venture capitalists to start a new gene therapy company, GenVec, in Maryland.

As the Chief Scientific Officer and Head of Research at GenVec, I designed and created a large number of vectors which were used in clinical trials including product candidates that are now in Phase II and Phase III of clinical development.

They say, variety is the spice of life, so I tried to apply my know-how to business. I became CEO of VectorLogics, a biotech company in Alabama. However, after a merger with DNAtrix of Houston I decided that science suited me better than business.

Presently I am CSO of this company. Through the years I have authored over 130 scientific articles and I am the holder of over 100 US and foreign patents. I still live in Maryland as nowadays it is easy to work from a distance. I find that arts and sports are a great diversion from work. I have a black belt in judo, I love to ski with my grandchildren and travel and hike with my wife. 

Questions

Why did you choose to go to SFU?   

I was working full time when I started to take qualifying courses at SFU. The flexible schedule and three semester system gave me the opportunity to complete my course work very efficiently. 

Where did you spend the most amount of time on campus?

I spent most of my time in the windowless “dungeon” laboratories of the biology building. 

What is your favorite memory from your time at SFU?

In the early 80s SFU was not the center of molecular biology. What I knew of the field came from James Watson’s book and the great lectures of Dr. David L. Baillie. In the summer of 1982 my PhD supervisor, Dr. Smith, arranged for me to go to Caltech to work in the lab of Dr. Eric H. Davidson for two months learning about molecular cloning. It was a great experience to be in a world famous lab with exceptional people. I returned to SFU in the fall and put together SFU's first molecular library and shared my techniques with anyone who was interested. It was a great feeling of accomplishment. 

Who was your favorite SFU professor and why?

When I started my studies at SFU the only thing I knew that I wanted to learn about was biology. Initially, as an electrical engineer I was drawn to biophysics. However, the phenomenal development biology lectures given by Dr. Michael J. Smith convinced me otherwise. Mike not only became my PhD supervisor, but a great mentor and friend. He taught me discipline in the lab and writing. Of course he did not know that I was dyslexic when he made me rewrite my thesis several times! He just assumed that I needed a little more practice since English was my second language. Every time I write a scientific paper I think of this event. 

How has your SFU degree impacted your career? 

My SFU PhD helped me to receive an NSERC Postdoctoral Fellowship which allowed me to study virology at The Rockefeller University. This determined the rest of my scientific carrier. 

What is your favorite SFU snow story?

I spent many nights in the lab in a sleeping bag to avoid wasting time with commuting. I was spending Christmas in 1981 the lab when one of those rare snowstorms hit the Vancouver area. I don’t believe there was anyone else in the building that evening, except me, purifying some highly radioactive material in the windowless basement lab. In the exact moment when I was going to load the material on top of a column all the lights went out. This turned out to be one of the scariest instances I remember. 

If you could give advice to students today, what would you tell them?

Try to find something that you really like. If you are getting bored, find something else. Sometimes we need to compromise for some external reason, but don’t forget, waiting for retirement to do what you like to do, should not be an option. 

What is the one thing about SFU that must not change?

Unfortunately, I have not had the chance to visit SFU for a very long time. However, I very much hope that SFU does not lose its unique flexibility, which allowed me to achieve my career goals.