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Dave Kolpack, Associated Press writer, Published February 15 2010

UND professors leave unfinished work

Two veteran University of North Dakota medical school professors who died over the holiday break left behind more than years of expertise. They also left unfinished science projects.

Siegfried Detke and Gene Homandberg, both 59, were members of the Grand Forks school’s biochemistry and molecular biology department. Homandberg died on Dec. 21 after a long battle with cancer. Detke died on Jan. 13 following a heart attack.

Their colleagues are trying to figure out what to do with various materials the two men left on the shelves and in the freezer.

“They’re not supposed to die before they retire,” said Kathy Sukalski, interim chair of the department.

Detke, who had been at UND for more than 22 years, was working on the membrane system of a parasite known as Leishmania, which is responsible for an infectious and often debilitating disease. It affects about 350 million people around the world. It is not found in the United States.

“It was unusual that a guy could be in a place where it’s 20 below and working on a disease that’s a concern to tropical medicine experts,” said Jon Jackson, a medical school associate professor. “He showed that if you are doing research, you are connected to a much broader world out there.”

Homandberg, who arrived at UND in 2002, was doing technical experiments that one day might help people suffering from osteoarthritis.

The question is whether there’s anyone who can pick up where the two men left off. Homandberg’s project was affiliated with a grant from the University of Iowa, so Sukalski said there might be researchers there interested in his work. Detke, though, liked working alone.

“He was very much an independent person,” Sukalski said. “Some of his labs took years to develop, and they’re very specialized. No one in the department knows what to do with them.”

Detke had one research paper he was ready to submit for peer review. It’s in the hands of a former graduate student familiar with his work, who plans to turn it over to a medical journal, Sukalski said.

“Many times manuscripts go out and reviewers make comments and say things have to be done before they’re published,” Sukalski said. “Obviously in this case there won’t be any more experiments. It’s either an up or down vote whether it gets published.”

UND professors work regularly with student researchers on recording data and using backup systems, Jackson said. That includes keeping a notebook or journal. It’s also recommended that researchers understand who owns the material, he said.

While there are examples of research that died with scientists, Jackson is confident the work of both UND professors will find a home.

“The ideas they generated and the data they collected to try and answer the questions they were getting at will not be sitting around gathering dust,” he said.