Behind the Blue: Lisa Cassis on UK's Remarkable Research - Podcast Transcript


From the campus of the University of Kentucky, you're listening to Behind the Blue. 


Kody Kiser: When we think of research, our minds may possibly conjure up an image of a scientist in a white coat, hunched over a lab table, pouring chemicals into beakers. But, research takes a multitude of forms, and flourishes in many different fields; from clinical trials for new cancer medication to composing and recording an album of original music, and even to studying and refining the most effective ways to cure a country ham. Research often leads us towards answering questions we didn't even think to ask. 


I'm Kody Kiser with UK PR, and I'm joined this week by my colleague Amy Timoney. At the forefront of research efforts here at the University of Kentucky, is the construction of a brand new, 265 Million dollar, multidisciplinary research building, expected to be completed in 2018. A space that will be dedicated to addressing health challenges and disparities in Kentucky. Joining us this week to discuss this new facility, and the impact it will have on innovation and collaboration is Dr. Lisa Cassis, the University's Vice President for Research. 


Kody Kiser: In our conversation, Dr. Cassis talks about her personal journey in the fields of research, the importance of bringing together viewpoints from different fields to drive new discoveries, the importance of clinical trials through UK's Center for Clinical and Translational Science, and more. 


Dr. Cassis, the first thing, and again, if you're a listener of the podcast, you've heard me each week do this, talk a little bit about how you ended up at UK. What your journey was like to end up here at the University. 


Lisa Cassis: Okay. Well, I grew up in West Virginia. Charleston, West Virginia. And, I went- did all of my school in West Virginia. Went to WVU for both pharmacy school and then graduate school. Did a couple of postdoctoral fellowships, and then said, "Okay." You won't maybe like this answer, but the reason I looked at Kentucky... One reason was it was close to my home. It was, as a University, about as close as West Virginia University was from where I grew up. So, this was actually a great geographic location for me. 


And, then the other reason I looked at UK seriously, and was happy that they contacted me, was because of... I'm a pharmacist, and the pharmacy program had been long recognized as one of the top five in the nation. So, it was a great fit; geographically, high academic program, and strong research. So that's how I ended up here. 


Kody Kiser: So, when you started here, obviously you're in a different position now than when you started, so what was that process like, as far as when you first came here, and kind of how you moved through where you were. 


Lisa Cassis: Yeah. So, I started as an assistant professor in the College of Pharmacy. I was in division of pharmacology and experimental therapeutics. I did what most assistant professor do. I tried to start my independent research program, but I was also- had a fairly significant teaching load. Pharmacy is a- is a heavy curriculum for the students, so I taught quite a bit. It's quite challenging to do both. Was fortunate to be promoted to associate professor with tenure. And, then just kind of honed in on my research program, continued to have it grow, expand. Got in on those years when the NIH's budget was doubling. Was very fortunate to be well funded.  Got promoted to the level Professor, and then said to myself, "okay, now what am I gonna do? Is this what I'm gonna do?" I love research, I still do, but is this what I'm gonna do my whole rest of my career? Or is there something else I could do? And, it was at that time that Dr. Debere, who was the director of nutritional sciences, but was moving into a different position, contacted me and asked if I would be interested in applying for the position of director of that program. 


So, I did it with some trepidation, but it was probably the best thing I've ever done. Because I learned that I could still do my own research, but yet make a difference helping other people realize their academic career dreams, and research, and all parts of our mission. So, that's how I ended up in leadership. I think I was kind of a reluctant person coming into leadership. And then, this position that I'm currently in, I think I did it again, because several people suggested to me that I could make a difference in the research infrastructure. And, I think it was again, a bit of a trepidation to pull me into it. But, I hope that I am making a difference. So, that's why I come to work every day. 


Amy Timoney: You answered my next question, was what motivates you every morning to get up and come to work. But... 


Lisa Cassis: Research still motivates me. It's still the thing that... It's like, I don't know. It's almost like a virus or something. You start doing research and you follow some question, and you let it take you where it takes you. And, it's actually the most fun thing. I think about it, I swear I do, in the shower. I think about it when I'm driving to work. If I get the opportunity to walk, which I don't very often these days, that's what I'm doing; I'm thinking about... I solve something. I figure something out. So, to me, it's still probably what gets me up and gets me here. And I'm very fortunate to still have some time to devote to research while still trying to do what I need to do as the Vice President for Research. So... it's great. It's fun.  


Kody Kiser: Do you think that... is there anything to the idea that research, and health type research, coming from the area that you came from... And Amy and I are both from Eastern Kentucky, and so, we do understand that there are... in Eastern Kentucky and Appalachia in general, there are distinct things regarding health that are... that need to be addressed. Now, I would assume that that's true [of] any regional area that you live in in the country, or the world. That there are health issues specific to those regions. But, do you feel like maybe those... is there anything to the idea that coming from this area, that... that influenced you, or maybe gave an impression on you, as far as health research and things like that? 


Lisa Cassis: Yeah, I... you know, West Virginia has struggles from so many of the same health problems as Kentucky. What really made me go into research was my dad. He had coronary artery disease. He suffered through two or three heart attacks. He had three open heart surgeries. Absolutely amazing what he had to go through. And, I watched him, and said, "You know, there's got to be something that we could do." And I saw so many people in our family that suffered from diabetes, heart attacks, all these types of problems that plague us in the southeast especially. And, so actually that's why I went into research, and that's why I'm a cardiovascular researcher. Because I think I was trying to... and I often say this, it's kind of embarrassing. Many of the things that I study in my own research program, I suffer from myself. So, sometimes, I say I'm just trying to save myself in some ways. But, I think it is. Like I see in myself what I see all these other people having to go through. And so I guess, you know, I do believe that people do research because they want to help things and make a difference. So, I think that's what brought me into it. That was the way I contrived to do it. I wasn't necessarily the best suited to be a physician. I wasn't the best suited to be a nurse, but I could do it through this research, and trying to find something that I could contribute that would help people. 


Amy Timoney: What has it been like to go from being, kind of very specifically focused in your own research, to being in a position where you kind of have a 360 degree view of all the research going on at UK? Has it... I mean, did some of the things that we're doing here now kind of shock you in a way, and make you feel like, "oh wow, you know, we're really... really making some marks on all kinds of different areas in research"? 


Lisa Cassis: I think I had no clue. You know, I think we all are in our own little world. Many scientists are kind of introverts anyway. And, we do kind of hone down on our problem, and we don't really see what's around us. So, yeah, when I came into the Vice President role... It's kind of like I'm a sponge. I'm just reading about what people do all the time. I oftentimes have to present a little maybe of what they're doing, and I relish in the fact that I hope, that because of my training and background, I can describe what they do. I hope I do that accurately. And help them. But I try to do it in a way that people can understand the research, or simplify it. 


So, I had no clue what all was going on at UK. I really didn't. I still struggle with understanding some of it. But, I do the best I can, and I really think that it's like amazing; the breath of things that are going on here. 


Kody Kiser: Just off the top of your head, I mean, are there... I guess give us an idea of some things that... examples of things that we are working on as a university; as a research university and some of those areas. 


Lisa Cassis: Well, I think the most recent one that has been highly... gone into the press, is Dr. Seales' work, the virtual unwrapping. My daughter's in computer science. She's an undergraduate here at UK, and you know, I often am trying to ask her, what exactly are you learning? And, when I see what they do, how they apply their computer science skills to doing what they do, and unwrapping those scrolls virtually, it was like amazing to me. I... the other... some other areas that I've learned of that I really enjoy hearing about, it the mosquito work. That fascinates me as a scientist; how they're approaching the, you know, infecting those mosquitoes with certain types of bacteria that stop them... the females from reproducing. That work is fascinating to me. But there are so many examples. Even things in my own home college, which, I actually moved out of pharmacy, but some of the work there, on the... the drug abuse work on the esterases to break down cocaine. I mean, just the breath of it. 


Engineering. I've learned all about Carbon recapture. I didn't even know really what that meant. So, that's been fascinating. How their researchers apply to every piece of that; the scrubbing, the solvent efficiency, everything. Things that I can still kind of understand enough to appreciate. And then, of course, there's the humanities.  And as we were just talking about, I mean, all of that type of work on new books, new sonnets, poems. Just, amazing stuff that people are doing. It's great that we can recruit them here, and have that as part of the undergraduate, all the way through to graduate, and the research that maybe, hopefully, make a difference, like I said, in people's lives. 


Kody Kiser: I think that's been a misleading idea that people have from time to time, is that when people hear research, they generally tend to think of someone in a lab, with beakers and test tubes, and a Bunsen burner, and they're doing some sort of chemical reaction kind of thing. And really, honestly, we've experienced this in the work that we've done, just Amy and I in our office, in that research takes so many different forms, and it comes from so many different angles, and it answers questions that are much more broad based than just, like, some sort of drug research or health care research. But like, people in the music department, who are working on... they're in a studio, and they're writing music and they're working on a new cd. That type of work is research. Or working on a book.


Those types of things are research, which then translate to other areas. Just like the mosquito work and how that translates to different areas. And even the stuff with the scrolls and looking into that. I makes me think of, like, what are some things that eventually, later on, we're going to be able to do with that type of technology. And how that can, not just from some ancient scroll that we've been able to read, but that's probably lots of applications that we've not even through of that we can apply to those types of situations. 


Lisa Cassis: Most... I mean, I'm a basic science researcher. So, you know, that's probably the type of research that's taken the biggest hit. And, people wondering what... why support this type of research, with these very basic questions? But, I mean, the reality is, you just haven't... you don't know where the next discovery may come from. You know, I mean, any little thing. I have, I think, what I would call two major discoveries in my research program. You may think that's not a lot for 28 years of doing this, but actually, you know, I... it's had to have two discoveries that you feel made a difference. And so, you know, I think... and I'll tell you this, what's amazing is, neither one of those discoveries were questions that I was originally asking.  They were things that I discovered because I didn't have blinders on in what I was doing. So, they were kind of an off-shoot or new finding from something very basic that... I'll give you an example. 


One of them was, I found that fat cells, which I... everybody struggles with in our bodies these days, could produce this protein that ultimately controls your blood pressure. And so, the power of that, and at the time I made that discovery, there was no obesity in the U.S. It was almost nothing. And fat cells were thought to do nothing but store lipid and release it when your body needed it as a fuel. And so, I made this finding, and people thought I was crazy. Why was I thinking these cells would make this protein? But they did, all the way from rodents cells to human fat cells. And, then came the epidemic of obesity and all the cardiovascular problems associated with obesity. So, I guess, for me that was a... and it was not at all something I expected. The finding was because I was looking at a blood vessel, and the fat surrounded the blood vessel. And it was contaminating my preparation. And, finally I realized that. Started to investigate this fat stuff, which I didn't even know what it was. And that's how I made the finding. 


So, you know, these are kind of very basic questions that we don't know that they would, or would not, be important. But, you know, let's face it. If we never went down these paths, we wouldn't have these cell phones, we wouldn't have anything. All of your equipment that you're using, everything, is the output of research at some level. 


Amy Timoney: Yeah. I... when you were talking about the other kinds of research, I was thinking back to the shoot that we did. We were in Erikson Hall, and I noticed a bunch of country hams, just hanging from the ceiling, and I asked. I was like, "what, what are these?" Well it was a researcher looking into the best way to preserve a ham. So, even into extension. I mean, that's a large part of what we do as well, right. So, it's just... it is fascinating to think about all the research that goes on. That you never know what's going to happen with it. But it also kind of reminded me about the fact that, I think it was President Capilouto who said that, the major problems that we're facing right now, as a society, are going to be fixed one through research, and two through collaboration. And, I know that's something that's really important to you in your position now. Can you talk a little bit about how that's going to be enhanced in the coming years with the new building? 


Lisa Cassis: Yes. We're fortunate, and I think everybody's heard this, but it's the truth. That's why you keep hearing it. Kentucky, UK is a collaborative place. People are generally able, and willing, and want to collaborate. And the reality is, now a days, to be competitive, for federal funding especially, you have to be... you can't be an island. You have to use a multi-pronged approach. So, the new building is incredibly exciting for me, because it will be focused on these health problems, like cardiovascular disease, drug abuse, cancer, obesity, diabetes; these major complex problems, that, you know, when you think about it... I mean, I've been in discussions with some of my colleagues here with the obesity epidemic, where they'll tell me it's all economics.  It's all based on economic issues. And, you know, here I am approaching it from a very biomedical basic perspective. So, you know, it really takes all these kinds of ways of looking at the problem. I mean, they may well be right. It could well be that it's primarily an economic issue. 


So, this building will allow us to put people like me in close proximity to someone who is studying it from an economics perspective. And we'll talk. Which, until I came to this position, I would have never probably talked to that person. So, I think what we have to do more and more of here at UK, is bring different groups of people together. The building will allow us to do that.  We're trying to do some things in my office that promote people coming together around a central theme or problem that they want to tackle. Drug abuse is another one that's going to take that. It's gonna take that multi-pronged approach to get at it. So, I think, yeah, I think we're ready, willing, and able to do it. The building will give us a vehicle, and my job is to promote that culture here at UK. 


Kody Kiser: It's interesting that you mentioned that in that way. Like you were referring to the perspective of taking an economic approach to researching obesity. The perspective that, well, why can't we do this faster? Why can't we... and there's always a lot of concern about the amount of money that we spend on research. But, it makes me think about the idea that this is not, necessarily... You mentioned like, going back to a time where there wasn't an obesity epidemic, and seems to me like I heard somebody recently talking about looking at old footage of people going into a stadium. It was like a baseball stadium. And, there was like, there were no people there that showed up in that footage, from like the 60s or 70s, that, when you compare that to now, the difference in the body types, and the differences in people who deal with that, or struggle with that, are way different. And, the idea of, well, can't you just go back to that period of time when it tipped, and figure out what exactly changed in x, y, or z? But it's not necessarily that simple. 


Lisa Cassis: It's not that simple. 


Kody Kiser: It does require a lot of research, and it does require a lot of approaches from a lot of different areas. And, I think that's one of those things that sometimes people don't realize. Just how layered and complicated it is. And you're answering questions, too, that are much deeper. They've been... these are questions that, like research now is moving to places... and it's always been about answering, correct me if I'm wrong, but answering questions that are much further ahead. Like, people talk about where we are technologically. If we weren't answering serious questions in research 20, 30 years ago, the phone that you have, or the camera that we're using, or the audio equipment that we're using, doesn't exist now. So, that idea of, we're not asking, necessarily, surface questions that could be answered easily. These are much more impactful questions. 


Lisa Cassis: Yeah, and those are the hardest things, you know. Because then I guess, in some ways, you're kind of gambling, right. On, is this an area that's going to be fruitful or have an impact, you know. And, I... it's... in some ways it can be kind of a gamble, or not a gamble, but associated with certain risks. So, I think now, you know, in my field, the big, and it's part of the President's initiative, the Precision Medicine, is an example of, you know, is this...? And I'm a firm believer that you can't just treat everybody, for example that has a disease, with the same drug and it's gonna work the same way.  I think there's... we've seen that that's just not the case. And what bothers me sometimes for some diseases, is that's the way we run clinical trials, for example. Is that, you know, it's just a general population with a certain set of criteria, drug doesn't work, we throw the drug away. But, I think the reality is, is that certain people with the disease, the drug would work in. Because they have that as the initiating problem. Versus, a different person with the same disease, may have a different target. 


So, precision medicine is kind of one of those future, kind of... We have to get there. It's gonna take a while. It's large cohorts, where they're collecting all the genetic and genomic information, all the way to the protein and everything. But it's a bit of a, you know, a risk. Is it gonna work in real medicine? Or how will it work in real medicine? So, it's gonna be a lot of people that have to come together to make that be effective. But it is. It's like sometimes, you're not sure of the path, you know.


But I think the only way we know is if we do research to determine if the path is the correct way or not, right. So, lots of fields like that. Lots of things that's... I mean. And I will say sometimes, maybe research is a little too much that way. Somebody makes a finding, everybody gets on the bandwagon behind that finding. Goes down this path that may not necessarily be the most fruitful.  Or there's an observation that somebody makes that doesn't nearly get the attention it should, that probably we'll find down the road, is a really important observation. So, it just takes, you know what it takes, it takes what we call peer review, publishing, getting it out there, having people repeat it, reproduce it, take it to the next level. And, then it just keeps growing and expanding ‘till it's precision medicine. 


Amy Timoney: You mentioned clinical trials, which, I think by the time this runs, we will have announced the Clinical Translational Science award. Did I get that right? 


Lisa Cassis: Yeah. Yeah. C- CTSA. 


Amy Timoney: CTSA. Okay. 


Lisa Cassis: Yeah, Clinical Science Translational Award, I think that's it. 


Amy Timoney: Can you tell me a little bit about the momentum that they kind of have going over at CCTS with these clinical trials? 


Lisa Cassis: Well first and foremost, I have to thank and congratulate my colleagues who actually run that program and put their everyday life effort in it. And, there's a lot of them, not just a few at UK. There's a whole lot of people that are part of that initiative. Dr. Kern is the leader of that program. You know, it's... it's a program that the NIH developed to guide translational research. It has specific criteria that you have to have that are part of it, and they're really important criteria. They're training of the next generation of clinicians and researchers that do research in humans. They're… You know, just every piece of what's required to do research in humans, which is very complicated. Lots of regulatory guidelines, compliance, all kinds of issues that you would hope would be in place since they're experimenting on you and me. 


So, I mean, that program is critical. I think, if we didn't have that program, then the healthcare enterprise we have here, which is very strong, I think, you know, that's what backs it. That's what feeds it, and makes us be able to provide the most cutting edge, the most, you know, well accepted, newest modes of delivering therapy and care to patients. So, that program's incredibly important. I was very nervous, as we all were here at UK, and I'm incredibly relieved, excited, and proud to keep it going. And I think it's.... it's an absolute necessity for our academic medical center. So, it's very important. 


Kody Kiser: From a national and even global perspective, we really are kind of in the thick of things as far as research in some areas, aren't we? I mean, I think some people may be able to look... they would look and go, well, they do research, but what are they really...? But, I mean, as far as really moving the needle and making an impact, there are a lot of things that we do here that are at the forefront of particular fields. 


Lisa Cassis: There are, and that's part of our strategic plan; is to identify and support those strengths in research and creative work. Everybody asks me that. So what are they? Have you identified them? I think we all know that there are some areas that, you know, we definitely have strength in, have been invested in, have grown and we want to continue to grow. Cancer, very important to people in Kentucky, that we have our NCI designated cancer center, and that we take it to the next step, which is the comprehensive cancer center. Which will move us into even more clinical trials and patient care in cancer. So, that's an example. 


Energy. We're very well known for our energy research here at UK. Mostly in the area of carbon capture, but not just that. Many other facets of energy. You know, I don't want to get in too much trouble if I don't name some others. I think there... you're right, there's some strengths here. Our, for example, the entomology group. And, I think that's been... they've become even... they were engaged early on in the Zika virus and things like that. So, I think there's just pockets of real strength. Cardiovascular. I will say that here at UK, we're very well known in certain areas of the cardiovascular research. We have the editor of one of the major journals of the American Heart Association here. We have a very strong group of researchers that study coronary artery disease, lipids that cause coronary artery disease. And, in the area I'm in actually, which is aneurysms. We're really well known for our research in aneurysms. So, there are many pockets of strength for which UK is definitely recognized. 


Sometimes, I go to these meetings, scientific meetings, and we're the dominant people in the meeting. We really are. And, it makes it feel... it makes you feel good. And, you also get people saying, "Hey, you know, what's going on there? I'd like to come there." Which is great for research. So, yeah. 


Kody Kiser: Well, I mean, and I get the impression that you wanted to be... make sure you cover all the bases with things, but I can't imagine any area that is just, you know, you don't go into research with the intention of treading water. You know? I don't think any... you know, that idea of just... we're just gonna kind of be content with just kind of being here. I mean, you... I think most... any area wants to really push forward and really make gains. I don't think you do it just to kind of... 


Lisa Cassis: We do. But in the reality of the economy and where we're at, what we have to do, I think, is identify some of these signature strength areas that we do continue or invest in to move them to the next level. We can't be good at everything. So, I think what we can do, is help support research no matter what, but then really move to the next level by the strategic investment. 


Kody Kiser: How do you feel about the importance of clinical... that partnership between like laboratory research and then clinical research and practical application? I mean, you kind of have to have those two things working cohesively. Especially in those areas of healthcare, and working in areas that... like going out into the state and into different regions. How important is that, to be able to get out and be able to do that type of work? 


Lisa Cassis: Well, I mean, I think it's vitally important. If we just stopped at me, for example, my research, you know, how would it ever get anywhere to help people? So, that's what that CTSA is helping us do, is translate, get out there, and have that impact. That's another area where, when you ask me, you know, what did I learn that I didn't know was going on here; I don't think I had any appreciation for how people were so dedicated to that type of research. That travel on a regular basis, because that's where they work with the community; in their outreach or in a research project. I had no clue. And the way they do it, and the things that go behind that, and that's it's really a partnership. It's not, I think, you know, it's not just we're doing research on a population. It's a true partnership. And I think that's... you know, that's something that I've really enjoyed learning about. I just... I didn't know people were doing that. 


Amy Timoney: Yeah. It's... I mean, I think in some ways, in our positions, there's kind of like that sponge thing too. Where you... there are things that you just had no idea about, until you kind of get to learn about them, and you just want to tell everybody about them. But, thinking a little bit too, about the economics of research, research, whether it be in the College of Agriculture with thoroughbreds and disease, and that type of thing, or it be with, you know. I talked even about the country ham thing. I mean, there are all sorts of areas where research is contributing to our economy in the state of Kentucky. Can you talk a little bit about that? 


Lisa Cassis: Yeah. I think, you know, one way that my office interfaces there, is in the Intellectual Property aspects of people's creations. So, one of our offices is the Office of Intellectual Property and Commercialization. And, we just recruited a new director, we're really excited about that. I think he starts today. He started his first day today. So, that's an example of, you know, if I... And the amazing thing is, is our faculty, they just don't think this way, you know. You go into research for... because you want to help people. You don't think that your idea could translate into something that has an impact on the economy, or makes money, or whatever. 


So, the purpose of this office is to help educate faculty. That this is an output that has an economic impact. We hold workshops, we help people... we evaluate whether something has patentability. If we think it does, then we cover the cost of that. And then the next step, is we try to take that technology and turn it into a license with a company. Maybe a startup company. And, these are our outputs in some ways of economic impact. And, then we're not doing this in isolation. There are programs in the state, that are supported by the state, that we partner with for commercialization of our faculty's' intellectual capacity. So, I mean, these are, you know, ways that I think that faculty have to be realistic and say, "you know, am I doing something that could make a difference, and could have economic potential, in not just Kentucky but the world?" And I think it's just that we have to train them to think this way more. 


Because the way the process works, if you've gone too far. In other words, you've published some of your original findings, it's no longer eligible for patents. So, we just have to make people aware that, as they get these new findings that could result in a drug or something, whatever, a device, they need to talk to us, and we need to talk to them and see what we can do with that. To have that economic impact. 


Amy Timoney: And that also seems to go back to having... having a university with so many specialized areas. Because even with Mosquito Mate, when we did a story about that, that you know, developed out of that entomology lab. But, they went to the College of Business for help with that. Which, I think is cool and kind of shows where we can... can stand out in terms of teamwork. 


Lisa Cassis: We do. We have Von Allmen's Center for Entrepreneurship. We work closely together. They help faculty with the startup of these companies and how to do that. Our side is more of the patent and commercializing their licenses and technology transfer, but... Yeah, I mean, where else can you work that people will help you take it from the very basic to the out in the economy? 


Kody Kiser: Kind of staying in a research kind of vein, we talk to a lot of students each year, a lot of new students, and we do a lot of interviews with them and we do a lot of work in academic recruitment. And, one of the things that is a recurring kind of theme, or a recurring system, I guess you might say, is the idea of students coming in, choosing to come to UK, and becoming very engaged in what they're working on academically. Driven by the fact that they can, from their first year, get involved and be part of the research process. They can get internships and they can become part of that process. How important is that, in your opinion, to be able to have those students and be able to kind of foster that? 


Lisa Cassis: Well, I'm a perfect example of how that's important. When I was in pharmacy school, one of my professors approached me. I didn't even know what research was, you know. My parents didn't go to college, you know, we just didn't even think that way. He approached me and I... I was an undergraduate, I came into his lab and did research for credit. And, I don't... I'm sure I wouldn't be here today if I hadn't done that. 


So, I think, you know, that is a definite thing that I hope undergraduates take advantage of here at this university. That, because we are a research intensive institution, that if they even try and reach out and ask, there are so many opportunities for them to do research. Just in so many ways. And, I do this all the time. I don't think I've ever turned away any undergraduate that's approached me, that wanted to do a research project. It's probably some of the more fun things, you know. Once it get business, it's a graduate student level. But, as an undergraduate, you know, it's their first experience. They're bright eyed and they have a lot of curiosity. They're learning from the very basics of pipetting, or, for example, to doing a real experiment. So, I think it's fun for the faculty. And I think it's really important that students, not only do it because it's great to have that experience, but probably do it because it helps them be marketable in what they eventually will want to do. That they've had that experience. 


Kody Kiser: Can you look back at... in your childhood, people... I know you mentioned your father, and that influence for why you went into the area. But were there teachers that... just the idea of going to college, or the idea of going into that... the sciences, who influenced you as a child? 


Lisa Cassis: My mother. She actually is the one that... she... as I mentioned, my parents didn't get to go to college. So, my mother told us they would pay for our college education, but we had to go into... she told us actually, we had to go into healthcare, because she felt like healthcare was a job security. So, that's how I originally got into healthcare. I loved English. I was like... it was my favorite subject that... and I think that was good, because I've had to write a lot in my career, so it helped me. But, yeah, she... she was first and foremost the person that... that, you know, kind of led me in this direction. I think I was always meant to be in this direction. She didn't have to push too far for me to be in a science field. 


So, I had this professor in college who approached me. I didn't ask him. He came up to me one day, and said, "Have you ever thought of doing research?" I was doing well in his course. He brought me into his lab. It was the most boring experiments I've ever done. It's amazing I stayed in it. But something about it just hooked me, you know. So, he was instrumental for me. And I... I think, for me really, it was my mentors during graduate school and my postdoctoral experience. Those mentors. I was really lucky to work with some great people. They were great scientists, but they were, more importantly, good people. They taught me, not just how to do an experiment, but, you know, the importance of ethics behind your science, and everything to do with that. So, I... I think I've just been lucky. I've had great people all along. I don't know how I stumbled into them, but I did. And, you know, that's kind of where I got where I'm at. 


Amy Timoney: It seems like you... you have a very busy schedule between your research and your administration jobs, but, because we want to know a little bit about Dr. Cassis, you know, the person. Is there anything you do to relax? Any music you like? TV shows? 


Lisa Cassis: I don't, you know, I will admit to you that I don't have much time these days to maybe do as much as I'd like to do that way. I love to sing, actually. I sing in my church choir. So that's something that makes me feel good all the way, from my soul to just, you know, whatever. And, so I really like that. And, I sing.... I especially like it because my daughter sings in the same choir. So, I get to, you know, look over and see her face singing back at me. I like to read. I read whenever I can. Most times I'm having to review grants in my off hours. But, I love to read books, you know. 


Amy Timoney: What... What's the... your favorite book that you've read recently? 


Lisa Cassis: Well, I'm kind of weird. I like these kind of historical fiction things. And I'm reading one about Thomas Jefferson's daughter. I can't even remember the name of it. It's on my, you know, what do they call those machines that you read everything on? 


Everyone: Kindle! 


Lisa Cassis: So, it's interesting, you know. It's just... I... It's from his daughter's perspective. Have you ever heard of his daughter? Yeah. So... It's fiction, but it's interesting. So, I've learned maybe parts of maybe something that's real. So, I like that book. I'm trying to think what I read... Nothing else is coming to mind that... I just read, you know, whenever. My thing is, whenever I'm on a plane, I'm reading a novel. I read it in hotels when I'm away. But, when I'm here, I have to work when I'm reading a lot. So, that's kind of how I reward myself. I save those precious times when I can... And I go... Believe me, every trip I've read a book. I get it read somehow or another. So, I like that. 


I try to walk, but that hasn't gone too well lately. I don't have too much time for that. And, I guess, you know, truthfully, I spend time with my family and my children. When I can. Because, as a women doing this sort of thing, you do get pulled away a lot. And, my kids are older, a little older, so I don't have to be there every minute, but I love spending time with them. 


Kody Kiser: You travel a lot for work? 


Lisa Cassis: You know, it's not too bad. I mean, I do travel, but I wouldn't say it's an inordinate amount of traveling. It's enough to make it interesting and not too detrimental for my life. So... And most of my traveling is... You know, I'm doing new things in this job when I travel, so it's kind of fun. It's different. 


Kody Kiser: Is it enough to, when it comes time for you to take a break, take a vacation, is it enough travel that you... When it comes to vacation time, then I just want to... I'm gonna do a staycation, or do you like to get out? 


Lisa Cassis: I go. I, you know, I love to sight see, but the reality is, sometimes I'm so tired I don't know I'm up for that sort of thing. So, we'll do that every couple years. And, then we do the beach a lot, just so we just sit there, with the family. The kids, we all go, and just, you know, relax. 


Amy Timoney: I was going to ask, what's your favorite… 


Kody Kiser: Nothing wrong with that. Yeah. 


Amy Timoney: …favorite travel destination? 


Lisa Cassis: Oh, I love the beach. I go... 


Amy Timoney: Maybe we should wait. Sorry. That's not very relaxing. 


Lisa Cassis: That's okay. 


Kody Kiser: That's true. 


Lisa Cassis: I mean, it's simple. I went to, you know... My parents took us to Myrtle Beach, I think, every year when I was a kid, for so many years. And, I, you know.... I guess you're a product of your upbringing, so I've been taking my children there since they were little kids. Not every year, but we'd go maybe every three to four years. They love going there. They know everything there. And it's just relaxing because we know everything. So, it's not really work, you know, to be on vacation. It's just pure relaxation. 


Amy Timoney: That sounds nice. 


Lisa Cassis: Yeah. Let's go. 


Amy Timoney: Okay. 


Kody Kiser: Let's do it. 


Amy Timoney: Any guilty pleasure food of choice? 


Lisa Cassis: Well, look at me. I mean, everything's a guilty pleasure. You know, it's funny. I'm not a dessert person, so I just like food. I'm of Middle Eastern descent, so I love Middle Eastern food. I love it all, unfortunately. So, yeah, I like... all the things you would know, would be like hummus and things like that. But, many of those types of food. Grape leaf rolls. Oh, gosh, I love all that stuff. So, I like the food part. 


Amy Timoney: So, now I want Middle Eastern food, and I want to go to the beach, so thanks Dr. Cassis. 


Kody Kiser: There you go. Is there anything we didn't ask that maybe you... especially as far as....? Well, let me ask this actually. Talk a little bit about that building and where we are schedule wise, and what people should be looking for on the horizon as far as how that building gets developed. 


Lisa Cassis: So the building, as you all probably know, was to focus on health disparities. It was a partnership with the state. It's a 270 Million dollar building, of which the state gave us half of that funds. So, we're in what we call phase one of the building, which is, unfortunately, having half the money right now, we won't be able to fit out the whole building. Where we're at is, we had a design team, both internal UK people and an external company that's been helping us with all the facets of the design. And, then we had a lot of UK faculty that have helped contribute to the design. I've been leading that group, and we've done everything from what colors are in the break rooms, to the design of every bench. I mean, we have really looked at every detail, so I hope people are happy with it. 


The design of the labs is called neighborhoods. It's different. It's a... it's going to be a great work environment for the people that work there, because there will be transparent light all the way across a floor. The neighborhoods are like six benches in groupings, and they'll be people from different labs. So, there's that collaboration piece. Because they won't all be one group in there. They're flanked by rooms that help due procedures and things like that. That people will use. The faculty offices will then flank those corners of that neighborhood. And there will be spaces outside of the lab where people can eat and drink, where all of the technical and other trainees and everybody sits. There's six floors in the building that are what we call wet lab that will hold these neighborhoods. There's a large auditorium on the first floor that we're real excited about, for holding seminars and whatever type of events. It will open up into the vestibule. So, it will be a nice space that's flexible. 


Lisa Cassis: And then, what we came up with to get it the collaboration piece... We thought a lot about this with the architects, and we came up with this connector building. Which has been termed the Appalachian Translational Trail. So, this connector building, it's a four story building, it will connect the new building to BBSRB and then Bio-Pharm. The four floors are dry lab researchers. So, those are the economist, the behaviorists, the clinicians. All types of people that approach this public health from different ways. Informatics. Every... all pieces to the puzzle. So, they'll be kind of the nucleus or spine that holds everything together, and you virtually have to walk past them to get from one of these wet lab areas to the next. So, that's really exciting. So, that's the way it's designed. And, we have a basement that holds cores and where the animals will be housed in different research projects. 


I think, you know, from A to Z, what we've done is we've tried to keep healthy living as the basis for the building. There will be lots of stairwells, prominent ways of... there will be a bike room there. We're trying to promote... we even wanted, you know, healthy food options for within the building, because we're trying to promote a healthy lifestyle. So, it's exciting. I hope... I hope when it comes to, you know, it's real and you get to come and tour it. I can't wait. I keep saying I'm picking out my curtains for my area there. But, I don't know, it's gonna be tough to get into the building. I will say that. Now, what does that mean? And if I go on too long, you can tell me. Not stopping... 


Lisa Cassis: What that means is this building is the brand new space of the university for wet lab researchers and for some of the dry labs. So, we will be looking at that space for how we can use it most efficiently and effectively. I'm currently working with a team of leaders at UK on designing and trying to determine metrics for distributing this space and allocating it. How we put people together in those themes to get the most effective collaborative output. All types of things. You know, how we save economy and use of equipment by localizing certain key group together. You name it, we're thinking about it. And, I... we will be rolling that out to the UK community and... And we're also, obviously, looking for planning on new recruits of talent to the university within that space. So, it's... there's a lot to think of, think about in going about this, but I think we're on top of it. 


Kody Kiser: This does too seems like, very much at the forefront of how research is done in this day and age, and taking the lessons from the past, and putting that together. And, it's not, kind of, a situation where we've got this group that wants to do research, here's this building, just go in and... We built this building, just go ahead and use that. Like, this is just a hand in hand process to say, what are the types of research that we're doing, who are the groups that we're pulling together, how can we make it more effective to collaborate? And, so how do we then build a space to enable that? That, to me, seems like so much more at the forefront of kind of where things are in field... those types of fields and that type of research. 


Lisa Cassis: You described it really well. That was really good. 


Kody Kiser: Well thanks! 


Lisa Cassis: That's... that's, you know, that's what we're trying to do. It's hard. It's not an easy thing to do, because there are so many pieces in the puzzle, you know. Who's going to recruit who? And, you know, it's just a lot of coordinating, a lot of thinking. I think it's a lot of trying to be transparent to the community here, so they understand. And, I'll say at this point, we haven't put out too much about what we're doing, because we're still in the stages where we're trying to decide all these things. And make sure that we're getting it right. We're polling lots of people, but it is a very complicated beast. But we're fortunate to have the beast and the opportunity to do this. So, we got to do it right, is what I think. Just takes a lot of work. 


Kody Kiser: So, now I will ask, is there anything that we didn't ask, or anything we didn't touch on that maybe you feel we should mention before we wrap up? 


Lisa Cassis: No. I'm not coming up with anything. 


Kody Kiser: Fair enough. 


Lisa Cassis: Okay. 


Kody Kiser: Fair enough. Dr. Cassis, thank you very much for joining us, we appreciate it. And we very much look forward to how the progress goes with the new research building and all of the different areas of research. And, kind of keeping our eye on how, you know, that progresses. 


Lisa Cassis: Thank you. We'll keep doing our best, right. Thanks. 


Thank you for joining us on this edition of Behind the Blue. For more information about this episode, or any other episode, visit us online at You can send questions or comments via email to, or tweet your questions using #behindtheblue. Behind the Blue is a joint production of University of Kentucky Public Relations and Marketing and UKHealthCare.