From Russia with Love, Learning and Entrepreneurial Spirit
“I come from a family of medical professionals and engineers—my mother was a civil engineer—so it came to me naturally,” said Department of Chemistry alumna Rina Dukor (BS ’86, MS ’87, PhD ’91). “But in Russia when I was growing up, there was a lot of discrimination against Jews. It would have been almost impossible to get into a good university. My mother knew I would never reach my full potential if we stayed, so we emigrated to the U.S.
“All the Russians in Chicago settled along Devon Avenue in Rogers Park and either went to Mather or Sullivan High School. I started at Sullivan in October 1980 and graduated a year and a half later. I had a really fun chemistry teacher and because of him truly fell in love with science.”
Rina Dukor at work.
Dukor is now the President of BioTools, Inc., a company that provides advanced instrumentation and services to pharmaceutical companies and academics engaged in biopharmaceutical and drug research. Their products include the Chiral-RAMAN-2X™ Raman Optical Activity spectrometer, for which they won a 2004 R&D 100 Award, and the ChiralIR-2X™ Vibrational Circular Dichroism (VCD) spectrometer.
“My early college goal at UIC was to go on to medical school, but Tim Keiderling changed all of that,” said Dukor. “He was my professor in one of my advanced chemistry classes and I approached him about working on an independent research project. Honestly, at that point I knew nothing about research, but I was looking to do well and get an extra A to boost my grade point average. I was kind of isolated within the Russian community at UIC and was not aware of all the opportunities that were available.
Independent research matures your reading, writing, critical and analytical thinking—the skills that are so important no matter what you decide to do when you graduate.
“Professor Keiderling presented me with a research challenge: to prove that the Polyproline II helix had a specific shape—rather than being an unordered helix, as most of the scientific literature asserted. He believed this could be proved by using VCD technology. He told me to study the literature, design the experiments and prove the theory. It took me six years, but I did it.
“I cannot say enough about the importance of independent research, not only for graduate students but also undergraduates. While he was always available for discussion, Keiderling gave me a problem and the responsibility to solve it. To learn the technology he assigned a post-doc fellow, who worked very closely with me. I learned how to run the instruments and how to prepare samples. I participated in decisions about experiment design. I was very excited to come to the lab every day.
“I feel very strongly that as good as classes can be it is all structured thinking. When you do independent research your mind opens up. When you do one experiment, you don’t always get an answer right away, but the results lead to more questions and more thinking that opens your mind to a variety of possibilities. You get hands-on experience of what science really is. Independent research matures your reading, writing, critical and analytical thinking—the skills that are so important no matter what you decide to do when you graduate.”
During their six years of research, as Dukor was working toward her PhD, Keiderling and Dukor made a critical contribution to drug-design science.
“The proteins that are in our bodies have a three-dimensional form. Depending on the shape, they have a particular function. One of the shapes of the Polyproline II helix was unknown,” explained Dukor. “People thought there was no particular shape to it, but based on our experiments we found that the shape does have a very definitive form that is very important in understanding the complete structure—and thus a function of proteins.
“Knowing the exact shape helps pharmaceutical companies design better drugs because it allows the small molecules to bind better to the proteins in our bodies. It is the lock-and-key hypothesis: scientists need to know the shape of the lock so they can create the perfectly-shaped key to fit into the lock. We have determined one of those shapes definitively.”
Immediately upon completing her PhD, Dukor went to work in the Biotechnology Division of Amoco Technology.
“I want the students at UIC to know how I got the Amoco job,” said Dukor. “They were looking for graduate students to help management personnel develop interviewing techniques and were willing to pay gas and $75 for students to participate. What amazed me was that of all the students in the chemistry department, no one but me took that opportunity. One of the managers I was assigned to really liked me and passed on my resume to a friend in the biotech department. Literally the next day, I got a call to see if I was really looking for a job. You have to seize opportunities, be proactive, if you’re going to compete.”
Dukor was one of only two female PhDs at work. “Then the other woman left and I was the only woman PhD until the unit was sold. I was young and was hired as a post-doc on the day Amoco had the first layoffs in its 25-year history. I felt excluded from the men’s discussions and most women didn’t talk to me either as they probably thought I was on a higher level. I was an outsider and it was somewhat difficult,” she said.
“There has been some progress with women in higher positions, especially in the life sciences. Not yet 50 percent, maybe 20-25 percent at the most. It’s still very challenging for women in science. And if you want a career and family life you must be very organized and know your priorities and have a very supportive partner,” stated Dukor. “It’s also important to remember that success is not necessarily determined by being the president of the company. You can be successful by enjoying what you do and making a contribution to society.”
ChiralIR-2X™ VCD Spectrometer.
When federal drug testing regulations were put in place in 1992, Dukor began thinking about how her graduate work with VCD could blend her scientific and technical expertise with her business acumen and entrepreneurial nature. She conducted a market study and determined there was an opportunity to commercialize the instrumentation that would help pharmaceutical companies comply with the new regulations.
Finally, in 2000 she partnered with chemistry colleague Laurence A. Nafie, worked with Canadian manufacturer ABB Bomem, and launched BioTools, Inc. to bring the VCD spectrometer to market. Initially located in the far northwest Chicago suburbs, Dukor moved BioTools to Jupiter, Florida in 2005, a decision she has been happy with for both her business and her family.
“The entrepreneurial spirit, the ability to take risks, has to be in your heart. My uncle was an inventor and entrepreneur. The minute I landed in America I started selling Amway and then Avon. I worked as a cashier and a pharmacy assistant—but I also looked for ways on my own to make money. I look at a lot of people I know and they are great and smart and hardworking, but the entrepreneur thing requires passion. You can do it, even if it is challenging, if you find something you are very passionate about. If an idea takes over your mind, body, everyday thinking—then you can be an entrepreneur.”
In addition to her passion for science and industry and her devotion to her family, Dukor feels a real allegiance to UIC. She donates her time as a member of the LAS Board of Visitors and is a generous, long-term donor to the College. In 2012 she funded an Access Illinois Scholarship.
“I owe UIC everything that I now have. Working is good, it’s okay to have a job while you are in school, but you need to devote time to your studies, too. Without the generous scholarship support I received, I would not be where I am today. Someone else was kind enough to help me succeed and now I get satisfaction from assisting the next generation,” Dukor said.
“UIC is a priority in my philanthropic work because they gave me so much. Education, maturity, personal life and growth, and the friendships that I’ve made—it was all because UIC provided the forum to make those connections and get that education. I think every alumnus has the responsibility to give back, whether they had a scholarship or not. It is a very emotional subject for me. The best way to say it is that it fills my heart.”
Photos by Jennifer Drebing