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A Return to His Roots
NCI's De Luca Can't Get Enough of the Classics
By Rich McManus
On the Front Page...
NCI cancer researcher Dr. Luigi De Luca gets a ton of unreported income from an approved outside activity, and finds it so rewarding that he shows up at his moonlighting job 8 times a week — every weekday morning, Monday and Wednesday afternoons and Sunday mornings.
The income isn't money, though. It's the satisfaction of introducing parochial school kids to the joys of Latin.Sure, De Luca gets paid a modest salary by Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic Church in downtown Bethesda, and his work there, he chuckles, is officially copacetic. But pay is not what prompts him to report there so often, sometimes twice a day. He goes because the classics — Latin and Greek — were the love of his early education in Maglie, Italy. He very nearly chose languages over biochemistry when, at age 18, as an applicant to the University of Pavia, he had to declare his major.
De Luca had a scarce knowledge of English when, in 1965, he came from Italy — where he had earned a doctorate in biological chemistry from the University of Pavia — to accept a research and teaching post at MIT. "My language background was French, Italian, Latin and Greek," he recalls. "My English when I came here was not very good."
While De Luca and his wife, whom he had met at Pavia, did not plan on remaining in the United States, he nonetheless applied himself assiduously to the study of English. "To me, languages are very, very important," he declares. "I started to learn English at the University of Pavia, from an exchange student from the University of Oregon at Eugene. It was my first exposure to a non-Romance language." Fortunately for him, "about 60 percent of English words derive from Latin or Greek." He would tape posters of English words and phrases to the walls of his Cambridge, Mass., apartment. "It took me a relatively short time — I made it a priority, and Latin helped."
Within 6 months of his arrival in the U.S., De Luca had his first dream in English. "This is very significant," he asserts. "Either it's a nightmare, or you really have absorbed it," he says with a laugh.
The De Lucas grew fond of the international atmosphere at MIT — his peers were from Egypt, Israel, Lebanon, Austria, Korea and Italy — and decided to remain in the U.S. when Luigi was offered a job at the National Cancer Institute. In 1971, he came to Bldg. 37, rising to the level of chief of the differentiation control section in the Laboratory of Cellular Carcinogenesis and Tumor Promotion. "I've always been at NCI, and always in Bldg. 37. I'm an affectionate, addicted inhabitant," he says. A nutritional biochemist, he studies vitamin A and retinoids, and the role that essential nutrients play in the inhibition of cancer development.
While he is only too anxious to describe the role of the RXR-alpha receptor in breast cancer biology, or a new retinoid-metabolizing enzyme of the cytochrome P-450 type, the arc of De Luca's long scientific career is turning inexorably to his roots in Maglie (pronounced MALL-ya), a town at the tip of the "heel" of Italy where the regional dialect — itself an echo of the Latin of antiquity — is dying away within his generation. "I'm very attached to my home town," he admits; his parents, now in their nineties, only recently left Maglie for Pavia, to be cared for by his siblings.
De Luca had already taken 8 years of Latin and 5 years of Greek by the time he completed his "Liceo," or lyceum years at the Liceo Capece of Maglie. At 18, he had a career choice: languages or science.
"In the old Italian system, one could start school at age 5 and by 18 you had done so much memorizing and had fought your way through the logic of classical languages, philosophy as well as literature, history, art, math and sciences," he recalls. "It was a no-nonsense approach that allowed one to reach a maturity much beyond one's age, with a final national exam the likes of which I have never encountered anywhere. In fact, the degree you earn out of the Liceo is called a 'maturity' degree. This training permitted one to enter any field of university specialization."
The eldest of four, all of whom have chosen careers in the sciences, De Luca picked the chemistry-biochemistry curriculum, in which he also had a strong interest "in part because my father had the concept that you could make a better living [in science]."
Skip ahead several decades to 1999. "After 40 years of biomedical science, I decided I really wanted to go back to my classics, to kind of crown a dream." Convinced that he needed a formal education in Latin, he enrolled at the University of Maryland's evening college, in the department of classics. "Something told me that I had to go back and finish," he says.
Due to his earlier studies in Italy, De Luca was accepted at the master's level, taking courses one night a week from 5 to 8. "It took me 3 years and 3 months, studying always at night, to earn my master's," which he obtained in 2002.
"Latin never leaves you," he observes. "It's like biking or swimming — you never stop knowing. If a language hits you at a young enough age, it's imprinted. You dust it off, and it comes back as shiny as it was."
For De Luca, the classics slake an intellectual thirst that lies outside of science, but shares with it the need for a logical approach. "It's a process of continuous discovery — it's very exciting for me to go back and reconnect with the ancients."
When Our Lady of Lourdes approached the classics department at Maryland in search of a Latin teacher, De Luca got the recommendation. He began in September 2003, teaching 25 kids who meet from 7:30 to 8 a.m. every weekday, then two afternoons from 3:15 to 4:15. As if that weren't enough, he also teaches 300-level Latin to graduate students at the University of Maryland one night a week. "My life is pretty much in Latin right now," he chuckles.
His Lourdes students are excited to know that as simple a word as "exit," is "lifted right out of Latin," says De Luca. "They say, 'My God, this is real!' They love the application to modern language."
De Luca also runs an hour-long Latin Club on Sunday mornings, right after the 10:30 Mass. "They don't bring textbooks — we analyze words, English ones with Latin roots."
De Luca is also proud of his role as president of the Italian Cultural Society of Washington, D.C., which runs an Italian language program. For this and for his involvement in building up a scholarship program to help young students in the Washington metropolitan area, he was knighted by the Italian government in 2002. His wife is a professor of Italian at the Foreign Service Institute, and also teaches Italian on weekends at Casa Italiana in the District.
The weekends afford him time for his few non-scholarly pursuits — cycling (he is a long-time daily bike commuter to NIH), especially along the Capital Crescent Trail and in Rock Creek Park, and babysitting granddaughters Annabel and Olive. For vacations, he often returns to Italy to visit his parents and siblings.
It is on these returns to Pavia that he realizes how sweet life was when — as a student at the University of Pavia and a resident at the Collegio Cairoli (an "honors" scholar residence for Italy's brightest students) — he lived in his own room within an ancient building, and enjoyed daily maid and meal service. "I didn't appreciate it fully until I left," he muses.Considering his current workload, he decides, "Maybe I will retire." But if and when retirement comes, it won't be idle. "I plan to teach Latin. And I may earn another degree in the classics."
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