By Karin Pekarchik
Zebulon Vance was a undergraduate student when I started working in the Department of Biosystems and Agricultural Engineering. I remember him (his name is pretty distinctive), but we didn’t cross paths often. However, I noticed his activity on social media and was drawn to his news and photographs of New York City, where I lived before moving to Kentucky. I quickly realized that Zeb is a powerhouse for UK alumni activity. It is a pleasure to follow him (and have him follow us back!). He currently works at Bio-Rad Laboratories as a proteomics field application scientist, supporting biopharma operations across the Northeast and East Coast. I’m really pleased that he found time in his busy schedule to answer questions about his engineering education, his career in biopharma, and what it's like to live in New York City.
Can you recap your time in BAE? What are your favorite memories of Kentucky?
I graduated from the Department in Spring 2013 with my Bachelor’s of Science in Biosystems Engineering. I absolutely loved my time as a student at the University of Kentucky. I was involved in a lot of programs in the Department, such as Student Branch and Lawn Mower Clinic (there’s one brand my family is still barred from buying…eeeekkkk), and in the College, like being a College of Agriculture Ambassador. I also was a Resident Advisor for my last 2.5 years of college and, because I apparently didn’t like free time, I did undergraduate research with Dr. Sue Nokes and Dr. Czar Crofcheck. I have so many favorite memories of Kentucky, but if you make me pick one, it was probably from the ASABE American Society of Agricultural and Biological Engineers (ASABE) Midwest Rally we hosted in 2013. It didn’t hurt that Scratch the mascot, a well-known friend of BAE, made an appearance! I loved getting to see and connect with so many students from BAE programs across the region while showcasing our unique and vibrant department.
Where did you go after finishing your degree at University of Kentucky?
I am a Kentuckian born and raised. I grew up in Pineville, Ky., in southeastern Kentucky, and was sort of ready to be somewhere new for a bit. So, after graduating I attended, but did not cheer for, the University of South Carolina. I loved my research experience with Drs. Nokes and Crofcheck so much that I decided (in the middle of senior year) that I wanted to get a Ph.D. in Biomedical Engineering instead of going to medical school. Through my research experience in the department, I was able to connect with a professor at University of South Carolina (a UK graduate) and worked on projects surrounding a protein associated with Alzheimer’s disease. I had completed the pre-biomedical engineering focus and chose to continue that route in graduate school. Looking back on it now, because of the complexities of a BME degree and breadth of the field, I’m really glad I chose the path I did and didn’t specialize until graduate school.
What took you to New York City? Can you compare New York City to Lexington?
After graduating with my Ph.D. in 2018, I moved to New York City and completed two postdoctoral fellowships, one at Mount Sinai Hospital studying ways to reverse ischemic stroke and one at the New York Blood Center studying cancers of the bone marrow. I know all of that seems completely unconnected, but the threads are there to tie my journey together into a cohesive story!
New York City can be very intimidating. There are orders of magnitude more people here. More people lived on my first NYC block than in my hometown. The people here are just as nice and empathetic as people in Lexington. They help when someone is in need, but they also are very respectful of your space and their space. Everyone is just trying to go about their day and honestly, truthfully, they don’t care about the embarrassing thing you just did. It can be very freeing. There are so many people here you are guaranteed to find your group/your place. Just like in Lexington, I always see people I know when I'm out and about at the grocery store or when I go to the mall. I run into friends on the train and on the street.
But there are some things NYC just can’t beat. Lexington has so much green space, which I miss dearly. The traffic in NYC is also terrible. I sold my car before I moved here and I’m glad I did. The subway and bus system are great to get around but having a car here is a nightmare! Central Park and Flushing-Corona Park are great, but they are no replacement for the horse farms and Keeneland. The bourbon in Kentucky is also just so much better! I miss the availability of bourbon balls at my local stores.
What is your current job? What do you like most about it?
My current job is as an application scientist with Bio-Rad Laboratories. As it relates to me, we develop and manufacture products used in life science research. I work with biopharma clients needing expertise in proteins – things like Western blotting, purification using chromatography systems, or studying cellular responses through multiplex assays. Once they purchase an instrument/device from our team, I can go in and help train their users and provide them support as they scale and pilot new projects. And proteins are a BROAD field, so I see everything from food science related products to vaccines. My job is great because I get to help scientists be successful in so many different areas of research. As my history shows, I like getting involved in all sorts of science. So this is a great benefit for me! I get to be a scientist without doing all the lab work. My job also involves travel. While I primarily cover clients from Pennsylvania to Maine, I have also been as far as California for support.
How did your experience in BAE prepare you for what you are doing now (or since leaving)?
I always like to say I have studied everything – from working with algae to amyloids to acute myeloid leukemia (and many projects in between). And a large part of that preparation is from my time at BAE – put another way, the diversity of the UK Biosystems Engineering degree is a huge selling point in the job market today. I interact with all sorts of clients in all areas. Believe it or not, I’ve had to have conversations with clients about cellulose and biomass. I have discussed how to size pumps appropriately for some applications with our instruments. I work with food science applications regularly. It may not be a 1:1 translation, but I see direct parallels between my course work and my actual work today.
Tell us about your involvement in the NYC University of Kentucky Alumni Club. What is your role? What the challenges? Is Big Blue Nation alive and well in New York City?
I moved to NYC sight unseen. I knew no one here. And I had never visited – even though it was pre-pandemic, all my interviews were over Zoom. So, when I moved here, my first priority was to find a place to watch UK games and be among “our” people. Through the power of podcasts (Kentucky Sports Radio), I knew there was a place in Midtown that served as Kentucky’s home in NYC – Jack Demsey’s (36 W. 33rd St.). So I went and stumbled into the NYC UK Alumni Club.
I currently serve as President of the NYC UK Alumni Club. I became active in the club almost immediately and took over the presidency shortly before the pandemic…so things have been very interesting and challenging! There’s an inherent transient nature to people in NYC, so a lot of people left during the pandemic to work remotely in exotic places (read: back to Louisville and Lexington). However, we have something like 2,200 alumni living in the metro region. The huge following our university has means we have more than just University of Kentucky alumni – we also are open to friends and fans of the University! I try to recruit volunteers to help with programs or organize fundraisers.
Almost every alumni club has a scholarship that's given annually to a student from their area to attend the University of Kentucky, so a lot of what we do revolves around supporting that endowment. We host events such as game watch parties for UK Football and Men’s Basketball games, an AMAZING annual Kentucky Derby party, and we hold big pre-game events when the Cats play in NYC. Our “home” in NYC is just a few blocks from Madison Square Garden, so we will have four floors full of rambunctious Wildcats fans for hours leading up to/following big Madison Square Garden games. Everyone has a great time – and if you don’t believe me, just ask Dean Buchheit or President Capilouto, because they both joined us this year!
One thing I learned through the pandemic and in my new “remote” job is that I NEED that social interaction and human connection, so I think it’s important everyone reach out and “Make the Connection” with their local UK Alumni group and become active alumni. As I have learned, there are UK alumni clubs in something like 25 states (not including the Commonwealth) in cities like New York, Chicago, Tampa, LA, and San Diego. But there are also many across Kentucky, too. Most people have one within two hours of them. The alumni association is for alumni of all ages and stages of their career – for those who grew up with Coach Cal to those who remember Coach Rupp. And as a wise BAE professor once taught me, if there’s something about an organization you don’t like, even something as small as the goat cheese served in the salad at a banquet, you can get involved and be that change.
What do you like best about New York City?
I love that I can do something every night of the week if I wanted. The city has a heartbeat, too. It’s cliché, but there’s always someone/something on the go and moving. It really helps to push you through the weirdness of living here. The food is also incredible. Every cuisine from every part of the world and culture can be found here. I’m currently going through a ramen and Korean BBQ phase. There are no bad places.
What do you like least about New York City?
I hate that I can do something every night of the week if I wanted. There can be some FOMO here. There’s always a new Broadway show opening, or a friend going to a new restaurant. The cost of living is shocking at first.
Also, NYC bourbon is mid.
What do you miss about Lexington?
I was recently in Lexington for some meetings and the feelings flooded back to me. I took some time to wander through campus and see what had changed and what remained. I love to see the cranes moving, but I miss some of the old dorms – I lived in Patterson Hall and as an RA I lived in Kirwan Tower, Roselle Hall, and Kirwan III. So, seeing the dramatic transformation is both sad and a reminder of the progress that campus has undergone in the last decade. I miss the Lexington weather (I’ve lived through 112°F in South Carolina and -32°F in NYC). I miss the bourbon. But I think what I miss the most is the time. Those four years (or five, or six – there’s no shame in doing it on your own time) when I was on campus surrounded by friends with *limited* responsibilities were awesome. I could study at my leisure and relax.