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NIH Record vertical blue bar column separator Retirees graphic

CSR's Liacouras Retires After 35 Years

By Don Luckett

"I enjoyed it!" Dr. Alec Liacouras said many times, reflecting on his 35 years at NIH. He recently retired from the Center for Scientific Review, where he was the scientific review administrator for its medical biochemistry study section. The spark for his enthusiasm came from his high school biology teacher, Miss Heaps. "She was an excellent, no-nonsense teacher," he recalls, laughing about how he "studied chapters ahead" and was sometimes so far ahead he couldn't focus on classroom discussions and thus appeared slow.

The satisfaction he found in biology was particularly meaningful, given the hardships he faced. "My parents were immigrants from Greece," he explained. The difficulties often faced by newcomers were compounded by a family tragedy. Liacouras was only 14 when his father died of cancer.

Dr. Alec Liacouras
His family was supportive, but did not have the funds to send Liacouras to college. Instead he became a draftsman/clerk for the Dupont Co. Engineers he met there encouraged him to go to night school, and in 1958 he enrolled in the University of Delaware. "It was tough," he explained. "You go to work. You come home. You eat. You go to class or you study...until 1 or 2 o'clock in the morning." He earned his B.S. degree in chemistry in 1962. Liacouras then went to Pennsylvania State University, where he earned a master's degree in biochemistry in 1965.

A national tragedy then weighed on him — the Vietnam War. Liacouras was obliged to enter the Army and train as an air defense artillery officer. Things looked particularly bleak until he was sent to the Army Biological Laboratories at Ft. Detrick. "I didn't expect it," he said. "But I certainly appreciated it." He worked as a research biochemist for a while until the Army surprised him again, giving him the job as post adjutant with administrative responsibilities for the installation. "I enjoyed it," he exclaimed. The deputy commander noticed, and when Liacouras' tour of duty ended in 1968 he was told, "You belong in science and you should go into administration. You're good at it." The words stuck with him, but he wasn't sure what to do next.


"Being out of science for 3 years made it rough," said Liacouras. "I had to restructure my life and jump back so I could go forward again." He became a research biochemist at International Flavors and Fragrances in Matawan, N.J., and quickly realized he wanted to get back into health research. He feared it would take a long time, but a year later he was offered a position in the nucleic acids section in the NCI Laboratory of Chemistry. He was mentored there by Dr. Elizabeth Anderson, who led him to purify and characterize the uridine-cytidine kinase enzyme. At the same time, she encouraged him to enroll as a full-time student at George Washington University. Liacouras earned a Ph.D. in biochemistry in 1975. He also met and married Eleni Kallas, an opera singer; together they reared two children: Andrea, who earned an advance degree in deaf education, and Peter, who is pursuing a Ph.D. in biomedical engineering.

Liacouras' interest in administration grew, and in 1981 he was led to the Division of Research Grants (now CSR). He started out coordinating the review of fellowship applications in clinical sciences. In 1983, he began a new study section devoted to the biochemistry of genetic diseases: the biochemistry 2 study section, which became the medical biochemistry study section. He found it exciting to work "with the greatest minds in the country" and help the field evolve. Dr. Zakir Bengali, chief of CSR's biological sciences integrated review group, credits Liacouras for nurturing new gene therapy applications. "When these applications first came in, they didn't have a home," he said. "Alec worked with the scientific community to make a place for them in his study section so they'd be reviewed competently and fairly."

Looking ahead, Liacouras hopes to spend more time painting, gardening and collecting stamps from Greece. But he also wants to do something new: teach cell biology and biochemistry at a community college. "If more people can be stimulated to pursue this area," he concludes, "we will have a better idea...of what can be done to treat and prevent disease."


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