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VOL. 127 | NO. 44 | Monday, March 05, 2012

Cushing’s Day Gig for ‘Betterment of Humanity’

By RICHARD J. ALLEY

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In February, senior research assistant Richard Cushing began working with the Pathology Department of the University of Tennessee Health Science Center in the Tissue Services Core and Repository.

Richard Cushing is the frontman for the popular Memphis band FreeWorld by night and by day is a senior research assistant for the University of Tennessee Health Science Center. FreeWorld is celebrating its 25th anniversary this year. 

(Photo: Lance Murphey)

The repository is a warehouse of more than 3 million pieces of human tissue from hearts, lungs, kidneys and livers, as well as biopsies of various types of tumors. The samples are available to doctors, researchers and students to conduct studies on and compare to those of a patient’s.

“I’m facilitating, not just one professor, but anyone who needs it, a wide variety of different tissue types and samples for them to do research with or cure people’s diseases,” said Cushing, who will prepare and stain slides, or core the tissue samples, to be sent to those who requested it.

Work in the repository is not the 48-year-old Cushing’s first gig at UTHSC. He began work with the facility in 1989 in the laboratory of Daniel Goldowitz where he studied Developmental Neurogenetics, focusing on cerebellar disorders such as Parkinson’s, Huntington’s disease and autism.

April 2010 found him in the lab of Tiffany Seagroves and that facility’s research into breast cancer.

Today, though he may not be conducting the research himself as he did with Goldowitz or Seagroves, he’s still working to accomplish the same goal and he feels the same weight of expectation on the tasks at hand.

“It’s all for the betterment of humanity, it’s philanthropic, it’s all to help people either be cured of diseases or to help people find a cure for diseases and, ultimately, that’s what all research is for,” he said.

Coming from a background of laboratory research is invaluable to the repository, said the center’s director, Dr. Anand Kulkarni.

“He understands both sides of it and is very sensitive to the patient information that we get,” Kulkarni said. “He understands my entire lab structure and how it works.”

Having grown up with 80 miles of woods behind his parents’ home in Raleigh where he spent much of his time as a child helping any sick animals he would find, Cushing’s interest in the sciences began with the dream of becoming a veterinarian. It was a quest that led him from Christian Brothers High School to the University of Tennessee at Martin.

“Apparently you don’t really focus on small animals, dogs and cats, until later in vet school and so I spent a lot of my time out on a UT farm dealing with cows and pigs and, frankly, unless they’re on a plate, that wasn’t really what I was interested in,” he said.

“Research isn’t boring, it’s an exciting field to be a part of. Again, it’s philanthropy, it’s helping people. ... It makes you feel good.”

–Richard Cushing

Senior research assistant, University of Tennessee Health Science Center

He left UT Martin for then-Shelby State Community College and ultimately found himself at the University of Memphis where those combined college credits led him to a degree in biology, and his interest in research to UTHSC. It’s a career path that has shown a remarkable consistency and it’s the same dedication that is apparent in Cushing’s second career as the front man of longtime band FreeWorld, celebrating its 25th year this year.

“The entire time I’ve been studying biology during the day, I’ve been playing music at night and it’s been parallel paths that have served me well forever,” he said.

His work with music is as altruistic as his work as a researcher. He sits on the board of several organizations including the Memphis chapter of the National Academy of Recording Arts & Sciences, the Memphis & Shelby County Music Commission and the Beale Street Brass Note Committee.

“We’ve come a long way and there’s a lot that’s been changed and helped over the years, but there’s also quite a bit more that needs to be done,” he said.

“Though he has a ‘day gig,’ as we say in the music world, he is very, very passionate about the position of the Memphis musicians and their well-being,” said Kurt “KC” Clayton, past president of the Memphis chapter of NARAS, and who sits on the board of the Music Commission with Cushing. “He comes from the musician’s side, not the corporate side, but what the musicians are going through in their day-to-day struggles of paying debt, paying bills and providing for their children.”

Dueling careers and a family of two young sons with wife, Lori, would seem to create an insurmountable to-do list, leaving little downtime between work, dinner and homework, and the 300 gigs played last year.

“The whole problem in the scenario is getting enough sleep,” he jokes.

Though his Jekyll and Hyde lifestyle requires a lot of him, he’s not about to forfeit the satisfaction he gets from either.

“Research isn’t boring, it’s an exciting field to be a part of,” he said. “Again, it’s philanthropy, it’s helping people. … It makes you feel good.”

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