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Alumni Questions & Answers with Dr. Howard Cyr

Retired Senior Research Biophysicist, U.S. Food and Drug Administration

Dr. Howard Cyr poses for a photo at the Lion Shrine
Dr. Howard Cyr poses for a photo at the Lion Shrine


Penn State Graduate School alumnus Dr. W. Howard Cyr has a valuable message for current graduate students that was inspired by life experiences:  anticipate that your career path may take dramatic turns.  Cyr is offering that counsel and much more to Penn State graduate students as a member of the Graduate School Alumni Society Board of Directors, philanthropist, and judge at the annual Graduate Exhibition. Cyr also enabled the creation of the Graduate Exhibition Award in Health and Life Sciences, given annually during the Graduate Exhibition.

In an interview with the Graduate School Newsletter, Cyr reflected on his Penn State graduate experience, shared insights into a career that was highlighted by a seemingly endless array of rewarding challenges, and contemplated the impact he would like to have on the professional development of the University’s graduate scholars.

What were the factors that inspired you to attend graduate school at Penn State?

The largest factor in my decision to attend graduate school at Penn State was Dr. Ernest Pollard, chair of the Biophysics Department. He was one of several speakers commissioned by the scientific honorary society, Sigma Xi, to give lectures at various chapters throughout the country.  One of his talks was at the University of Vermont where I had recently been inducted as an Associate Member of Sigma Xi. My undergraduate advisor, Dr. Wesley Nyborg, well-known researcher on ultrasound bioeffects, was also a graduate of Penn State, so I was already somewhat aware of Penn State and its reputation through conversations with him. After the lecture, I spoke at length with Dr. Pollard, and he invited me to come to University Park to see the Biophysics Department in action. Some months later, I ended up in State College, Pennsylvania. I walked up the mall toward Old Main and was really impressed with the campus. I was even more impressed with the Department, its researchers, and students. As they say, the rest is history.  I joined the Biophysics Department, and became a lifelong friend of Penn State and a diehard Nittany Lion fan.

Looking back on your career, can you identify specific aspects of your graduate education that prepared you for the success you achieved?

Your question supposes that I’ve had tremendous success. In truth, there’s been ups and downs—a whole lot of downs at the beginning and some success later in my career. There were some important lessons that I learned at Penn State. One of the very best was from Dr. Pollard, my advisor and Department Chair, who would explain some complicated scientific principle or calculation and then stop dead in his lecture to question what he had just said. He would do what he called “a reality check.” Forget the calculation to the tenth decimal point. Are you in the ballpark? Is any of this making sense? With anything you do, make sure you focus on the main point and do not get distracted by many small points that could lead you off course.

Of the many research projects you directed, is there one that was a particular source of personal enjoyment and professional pride?

There was one of personal fulfillment and professional pride, but I wouldn’t describe it as “enjoyment,” since our research was related to AIDS, a disease that took many of my Washington, D.C. friends. Around 1983, the Surgeon General of the U.S. Public Health Service was asked about prevention measures to stop the transmission of AIDS. The inquirer asked if condoms, used for birth control, were effective in preventing the disease, and questioned the effectiveness of latex condoms versus natural membrane—lambskin—condoms. One of our FDA researchers, Dr. David Lytle, was an expert in bacterial viruses, and asked me to join him to answer this question. He was a friend and also a graduate of the Penn State Biophysics Department, where I knew him; he was a couple of years ahead of me. We built a device, for which we got a patent, to test condoms using a very small bacteriophage and a larger herpes virus that does not infect humans. Bottom line: latex condoms are effective against virus penetration, the technical term for passage across a barrier. A few will have small leaks and some will break, but overall, they were, and still are, the most effective barriers. Lambskin condoms proved to be effective against the larger virus, but did permit some of the small bacteriophage to leak through. From this first study, we went on to test surgical gloves, and then helped develop a laboratory protocol for testing any piece of protective barrier. I participated in several international AIDS conferences, giving our results. In addition, I joined a friend in helping to write a lay publication for the gay community of Washington, D.C., trying to relay what new facts I had obtained from those conferences, both in terms of prevention and treatments of AIDS.  

Was there one research discovery that you would describe as "memorable" or "exciting."

In the last few years of my career, I took on a new challenge. My supervisor and friend was in charge of a major set of studies that evaluated the safety of cell phone emissions. Unexpectedly one day, he announced that he was moving to a new job. The division director asked me if I would be willing to take over his assignment. I said that I really had not studied this area. She said that I had done well on other projects and had learned the essentials “on the way.” I didn't protest too much, and it turned out to be an exciting “trip”. There is a very vocal group of scientists—in the minority—who are totally convinced that there are adverse health effects from cell phones, but can’t prove it. The other group has examined all the various interactions of cell phone radiation and all the known possible mechanisms of damage to cells and cellular components, and have concluded that the amount of thermal heating is so small that there are no adverse health effects. I listened and learned and agreed with the group that said there are only non-adverse heating effects. I am now retired for eight years, have kept up with the major reviews of the bioeffects, and have seen nothing to change my conclusion.

Was your career path the one you envisioned at Penn State?

Only in the general sense. Regina Vasilatos-Younken, Vice Provost for Graduate Education and Dean of the Graduate School, spoke recently about the expectations of many graduate students who envision that they will work at a university conducting research and teaching, and if that doesn’t happen, then somehow your career is perceived as somewhat of a failure. Well, there are many other positions that require advanced academic achievements at the graduate level, and it’s not possible at the beginning to see how this will play out in your 30 to 50-year career. That was my case. I ended up working for the Food and Drug Administration in several areas that included my research in the field of radiation biophysics, but also in many areas that were only peripheral to radiation studies. We merged with the medical devices folks, and I got involved with risk assessments, sunlamp regulations, carcinogenic assessment of ethylene oxide used in sterilization, testing of condoms, gloves and surgical gowns, and finally in studies on the safety of cell phones. Graduate students should expect that their career paths may change in dramatic directions. Mine certainly did.

As a volunteer leader with the Graduate School Alumni Society, what impact do you hope to have on the lives of current graduate students?

This is a tricky question and a tricky situation. There is a tremendous gap between young students and older, maybe much older, professors or researchers. I remember as a young student being more than a bit intimidated by faculty members with great research credentials and a long history of accomplishment. Feeling comfortable with senior researchers and professors took some time for me, and I suspect that situation hasn’t changed a whole lot today. It was hard sometimes to differentiate between constructive suggestions and corrective criticism that might scare me away from further interaction. I think as an “elder” scientist, I will try to lean on the side of encouragement without coming across as too critical.  

What do you find most rewarding about judging the Graduate Exhibition?  

The most rewarding aspect of any poster exposition is seeing a complex scientific project presented in an understandable, easy-to-read format. I usually look at the title, the objective and the summary. These three components should tell you the main story of the project and the other parts will give you some added details, but not overwhelm the viewer with too much information. The main trouble with many posters is trying to cram an entire publication onto a poster. The author should also give the “bottom line”, as in, for example, “Chemical X causes cancer in rats,” and not something like, “The effects of Chemical X in rats.” A few changes in words give you a meaningful title and not an ambiguous one.

Why did you choose to create the Graduate Exhibition Award in Health and Life Sciences?

I was told about a program that Alan Andersen, a friend and coworker from the FDA, had established to help graduate students go to professional meetings. Alan made a generous contribution in his father’s name to create the Frank A. Andersen Ecology Travel Award for Graduate Students. It will be no surprise to learn that Alan was also a Penn State graduate from the Biophysics Department. Alan was also the President of the FDA Chapter of Sigma Xi when I suggested that our chapter sponsor a poster session for FDA scientists to demonstrate their work to their fellow workers. This was the start of many FDA-Sigma Xi Poster Expositions. Seeing a similar poster display at Penn State, I thought it might be nice to give awards to winners. I am pleased to make a small contribution to the University that has made my career possible.

More about Dr. Howard Cyr

As a graduate student at Penn State from 1965 to 1970, Cyr envisioned a career as a radiation biologist.  By the time he retired in 2007, he had made a significant impact on society through his research in ways he never anticipated. As a Senior Research Biophysicist at the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), Cyr was part of an AIDS-related research team which determined that latex condoms are the most effective barrier to virus penetration. He later led a major set of studies designed to evaluate the safety of cell phone emissions. The result: the small amount of thermal heating generated by cell phones does not cause adverse health effects.

In 1970, Cyr began four years of service in the Medical Services Corps of the U.S. Army.  He joined the FDA as a Commissioned Officer of the U.S. Public Health Service (USPHS) in 1974.  During his distinguished 33-year career with the FDA, Cyr was honored numerous times for outstanding and meritorious service and achievements. His fields of specialization included genetics, ionizing radiation and photobiology. Cyr retired from the Commissioned Corps of the USPHS with the rank of Captain in 2000, but continued to work in the Civil Service. In 2012, he received the FDA Alumni Association’s Distinguished Alumni Award for excellent work in radiological research studies.

Born in New Haven, Vermont, Cyr received his bachelor’s degree in physics at the University of Vermont in 1965, and master’s degree and Ph.D. in Biophysics at Penn State in 1966 and 1972, respectively. Now in his first term as a member of the Alumni Society Board, Cyr resides in Rehoboth Beach, Delaware.

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