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The next generation: Luciano DiTacchio

Luciano DiTacchio

From right: Luciano DiTacchio on the beach in La Jolla with his son, Sydney, wife, Kacee, and step-daughter, Kayla.

Luciano DiTacchio is not messing around. The 35-year-old scientist is scouring the Internet for images of the room where he will soon interview for a position as a junior professor at a top university in the Midwest.

"I want to see the layout of the interview room so I can plan my presentation—there's bound to be a photo or video posted somewhere," says DiTacchio, seated in a meeting room at the Salk Institute, where, now at the end of a postdoctoral fellowship, he's holed up to plan for his coming interview.

If luck indeed favors the prepared, DiTacchio will have no problem finding a faculty position—the next career move for many junior researchers. Among his colleagues and family, he is known as much for his intense curiosity and diligence as for his congenial nature.

DiTacchio's colleagues tell of finding him in the laboratory late at night, testing ideas that came to him at home in the evening and that he continued to work on at the laboratory bench despite chronic back pain from a serious car accident in 2006.

Already he has coauthored over a dozen papers with his colleagues in the laboratory of Satchidananda Panda, an associate professor in Salk's Regulatory Biology Laboratory, where DiTacchio has worked for the past six years. Most recently, he was the lead author on a paper reporting the discovery of the gene that wakes us every morning by revving up our metabolism, published in the influential journal Science

"I think he's the hardest working man I know," says Kacee DiTacchio, his wife and fellow scientist, whom he met at Salk while she was working on her doctorate at the University of California, San Diego. "He does not give up. If something goes wrong with an experiment, he's not going to start it again the next day or the next week, he starts it the next minute."

When he was young, DiTacchio's mother and father sold timeshares in the Mexican resort city of Puerto Vallarta for a living. But DiTacchio had no interest in going into sales. In high school he played guitar and sang in a band that played music ranging from the Beatles to Metallica and later considered studying music in college. But he also had an interest in and aptitude for science and decided instead to study microbiology at the University of Texas at El Paso. He went on to earn his doctorate in molecular biology in 2003 from Mayo Graduate School.

Luciano DiTacchio

Luciano DiTacchio

DiTacchio attributes his hard-driving nature in part to growing up in a developing country where limited opportunity and family difficulties, including his father's death when DiTacchio was 19, required him to work hard to accomplish his goals.

"I learned early on that you've got to fight for what you want and stick with it like a pitbull," he says.

That intensity, combined with his solid linebacker's build and shaved head, can lend DiTacchio an intimidating air. In conversation, however, he smiles easily and talks freely about a broad range of topics, from agricultural sustainability, an interest he shares with his wife, to beer brewing, a recent hobby that he finds well suited to the scientific mind because "lots of measuring is involved."

He is also an adoring father to his stepdaughter, Kayla, and 16-month-old son, Sydney, who, according to Kacee DiTacchio, matches his father's intensity. "I think he passed that gene on," she said.

Panda, DiTacchio's mentor at Salk, was often surprised by how broadly DiTacchio read the scientific literature and the depth of his knowledge about different laboratory techniques. "He is a walking search engine," Panda says. "If something goes wrong in the lab or somebody is having difficulty with a certain concept or technique, the first impulse is usually to find Luciano because he'll know how to fix it."

Panda also attributes DiTacchio's success to his willingness to help other researchers and his curiosity about nearly any scientific problem. For a recent study led by one of his colleagues, DiTacchio made over 20,000 measurements over Veteran's Day weekend, making it possible to submit the manuscript for publication in an influential scientific journal.

"There are two types of scientists," says Panda. "Some try to solve all the problems by themselves, but they don't get very far. Others work with their colleagues to solve problems, sometimes leading, sometimes supporting. Luciano is the second kind, and that's why he's been successful in making discoveries and prodding others in the right direction."

As for DiTacchio, he attributes much of his own success to working with researchers at the Salk Institute, who, he says, made him a much better scientist. "The scientists at Salk are some of the best in the world, and the work is demanding," he says. "I was intimidated at first, and I still never feel like I know enough. There were times I wanted to quit–but I hung in there."