Tony Baines and I met for lunch on a day with a powerful Southern thunderstorm. Tony spent the first part of our meal asking questions about every topic imaginable — it was clear that he is inherently inquisitive about the world, and people, around him. The weather allowed us to take some extra time to discuss his childhood in a rural Virginia community, his seriously studious middle school self and the possible repercussions of time travel.

Lea: Tell me about middle school, what state were you in?

Tony: I was born in New Jersey but spent most of my life in Virginia. I grew up in Belle Haven, Virginia, and my middle school (located in nearby Painter, VA) was called Central Middle School; it used to be a high school. Actually, my parents went there when it was a high school. The way it was set up, some students went to Central Middle School and others went to a whole other middle school; it depended on where you lived.

So did some of your elementary school friends go to a different school?

Unfortunately, yes, some of my friends that I knew in elementary school split off and went to the other middle school, but we met back up in high school. I had always been interested in the math and science courses, especially life science. I think middle school was where my science interests really grew. I had always been interested in the sciences, but middle school was where it really solidified.

What were some memorable classroom moments?

Actually in the picture

[see photo, above] the guy that was giving me the award was not only the assistant principal, but also one of my science teachers. I still remember him taking us outside of the school and walking through the woods. I still remember that. I remember seeing mushrooms and fungi growing on trees and that really stood out to me that not only could we learn stuff in the classroom, but we could go outside and actually see it. That resonated with me a lot and what made science one of my favorite classes. We didn’t just stare at a page in the textbook, but actually went outside and actually saw it for real. That’s what did it for me.

I remember seeing mushrooms and fungi growing on trees and that really stood out to me that not only could we learn stuff in the classroom, but we could go outside and actually see it.
What was your biggest worry in middle school?

My biggest worry? Ha! [Tony has an almost maniacal laugh at this point and I could tell I asked the right question] So… I was… um… I hate to say this but I was really your typical nerd — big glasses and always in the books. In terms of my biggest worry, and this might be funny, but I was thinking at that time about college. I remember going to the guidance counselor’s office if not every other day, every day, during lunch time looking at college catalogs. It sounds crazy, I know. Some of this I have forgotten until now. I remember it because it was unusual, but I remember going every day after eating my lunch and talking to the guidance counselor about college and looking at college catalogs. I think my biggest worry was trying to make sure I did everything I could do to go to college. Like I said, I was very studious then.

I think my biggest worry was trying to make sure I did everything I could do to go to college.
What did the guidance counselor tell you, do you remember?

I would say that some of my success today was because of having some very good guidance counselors starting in middle school. His name was Mr. Reginald Terry and he was a really good guidance counselor because he told me a lot of things I needed to do. He always told me I needed to relax. I was very tense and uptight about school. One of the things I remember him telling me was that I needed to combine my studies with athletics, and not just be a bookworm. He was the one that encouraged me to balance the bookwork and athletics along with other extra-curricular activities. He was really good and gave me well-rounded advice. He helped to encourage me to come out of my shell. I was really quiet, shy and an introvert, and he helped me understand how important it was to network and for people to get to know you and what you do. He has definitely helped to put me on the path that has led to where I am today.

Do you still talk to him?

I try to catch up with him when I go back home to Virginia. I always tell my family to tell him hello.

Do you feel now that you’re a professor that you want to take on those more advisory roles to students that might need it?

I’ve definitely had some good role models in my life, science-related role models, from middle school, high school, guidance counselors, scientists. I think all of those things have helped to make me want to give back to students because of what was given to me. I had an amazing high school biology teacher, and I mean amazing. I don’t know if you saw the movie The Dead Poets Society, but my high school biology teacher was just like Robin Williams in that movie. I’m serious. Because of that, I’m now a teacher/researcher. He would stand on top of desktops… To show the different properties of elements, he once took some sodium and put it in a beaker of water — it blew a hole in the light fixture in the ceiling! It was one of those things that really got me excited about science and wanted me to get other students excited about science. I think that’s what led me to choose a career in academia where I can teach and do research and expose students to science and get them excited.

What did your parents want you to be when you grew up and what did they do?

I don’t think my mom had any specific careers that she wanted me to do; she just wanted me to do well in school so I’d have options. I think my dad would have liked me to have followed in his footsteps. He is a machinist and a welder, and he’s very good at it. I think he has really gifted hands. I’m not saying he didn’t want me to do whatever I wanted to do, but he had some interest in me following in his footsteps. I didn’t have the same gifts, talents and passion that he had in that area. My interests were more in science, so that’s what led me to that path.

[My dad] is a machinist and a welder, and he’s very good at it. I think he has really gifted hands. I think he wanted me to follow in his footsteps.
Was there conflict when you went off to college and did something different?

I wouldn’t call it conflict, but I would say that at the end of the day my dad realized that everybody has different interests. He always supported me in academics — I remember him always taking me to academic events and stuff at school. My parents were definitely supportive in my academics and really encouraged me. I remember getting a chemistry set for Christmas. And actually — this will show you how much of a nerd I was — not only did I ask for a chemistry set, but I also asked for a physics set. So it may have been for my birthday, but I got that physics set. My parents have been very supportive of my interests.

What were your favorite subjects?

Biology. I like math, but I always had to work hard at math. Science seemed to come easier for me. In middle school we had life science and physical science… I enjoyed all those classes.

What was it about science that you liked?

One of the things about science is that it helped me answer my questions. I’m a very inquisitive person — I want to know when, where, why, how, why not… and so science helped to answer those questions for me. That’s one reason. The second reason was that it’s one thing to open up a textbook and read about fungi and plants and bugs… but it’s another thing to be able to go outside and actually see it. I enjoy application. I enjoy being able to see things become real. I like theory, but application makes it complete for me. Those are the two things that make science work for me — its application and how it helps to fulfill my curiosity.

Is there something that you learned in middle school that really stuck with you?

For me I think my teacher taking our life science class outside regularly to observe bugs and plants made it real. That really stands out. Also, for both my life science and physical science courses, the teachers were passionate. I mean you could tell they were excited about science. They were really interested and excited about it. When we had the opportunity to do experiments, it really made it more real.

Were you in any clubs or have any hobbies?

I was in the science club… but middle school was where I learned I had to do more than just books. I didn’t do much beyond school, but I will say that because of the advice of my guidance counselor I really started doing more stuff when I transitioned to high school. In middle school I was a bookworm, which on one hand was good because it led to me becoming the valedictorian of my eighth grade class [he says, adjusting imaginary suspenders]. It wasn’t until afterwards that I realized I had to do more.

In middle school I was a bookworm, which on one hand was good because it led to me becoming the valedictorian of my eighth grade class.
Did you ever think that you would become a scientist? What did you think scientists did all day?

I did. I did think I was going to be a scientist. I thought scientists just worked in a laboratory and answered interesting questions. I had other interests too…

What were some of your other interests?

[laughs] I knew you were going to ask that, but it wasn’t really science related! So… this was probably my dad’s influence, indirectly. My dad was in the Army. When I was growing up, he was in the Reserves. I had an interest in being a Green Beret, and I think this will make you appreciate how studious I was. I went to the guidance counselor to ask how do I go about being a Green Beret. He said I probably had to send a letter to the Pentagon asking for information about the Green Berets. And I did that! I got this packet back about Special Forces. He was a good guidance counselor, he encouraged me to pursue my interests.

If you had to go back in time and talk to your middle school self some advice, what would you say?

I would go back and say, “RELAX!” I was really serious about school and doing well. I would go back and tell myself that life is way more than books and how many A’s you can make. I would tell myself to try to have more fun, try to balance work with fun. Enjoy life. Keep pursuing science because if that’s what you think you want to do, that’s what you should do. Follow your passion despite what people say or do. For most middle school students who do decently well in their classes, they probably get picked on and bullied, so I would go back and tell myself,”Hang in there.” Eeventually those persons who bully you and pick on you will be respecting you because of what you’re doing, especially when you transition to high school. They’ll be asking, “Can you help me?”

Do you think your middle school self would have taken that advice?

That’s a good question! You know what, I think so. The reason why is because I took that advice from my guidance counselor. In high school I did track, I was on our forensics team, and I was on our academic bowl challenge team. My middle school self was always impressed with people who were successful. I’m still the same way. I’m always intrigued by people who are successful; I want to know how did they get to where they are now. He would have listened. He might have needed some constant reminding. I think the reason why he was like that was because he knew that college and education opened doors. I think that’s why he was so serious like that… but he would have listened.

I think the reason why [my middle school self] was like that was because [I] knew that college and education opened doors.
Do you think you’d be where you are today if you had taken your own advice and relaxed more in middle school?

I think so… what’s making me think about that is that in middle school, I was valedictorian. In high school I met back up with my friends from elementary school and I have some very amazing, smart friends. So in high school I went down to fourth in my class. That’s why I hesitate. I believe I would still be where I am today except I would have learned how to balance things sooner than high school.

What do you think your middle school self would be most surprised about considering your life?

I’ve done some things that I would have never imagined being able to do.

Like what?

[Getting an answer out of Tony at this point was difficult, he is very humble and did not like to boast about his accomplishments. He obliged after I reminded him that his stories of success could inspire a middle school student today.] Last May I was invited to give a research talk at M.I.T. — that was really cool and scary and stressful all at once. I have to say, it was cool. I was like a middle school kid again at M.I.T., talking to other researchers. That was amazing. Being invited to give talks at different universities, like M.I.T, Duke, NC State, University of Missouri — being flown to give a talk about my research. I would have never thought about doing something like that. Being invited by different scientific organizations. I have memberships at the Society of Toxicology and the American Association for Cancer Research. So being invited by these organizations to talk to students or be a moderator — I would never have dreamed of doing those types of things. Publications… things you know scientists do. Working in industry, being a consultant for a pharmaceutical company, being a consultant for a law firm. I would have never have guessed I would have these opportunities. And even this — to be able to give some words of encouragement to middle school students. I never would have imagined those things. Middle school Tony would be extremely impressed at the things I’ve been able to do as a scientist and a college professor. I had an internship at NASA at the Kennedy Space Center and saw two shuttle launches and met astronauts. I never would have imagined anything like that. I know that middle school Tony would have been impressed beyond his wildest dreams. I’m from the country, a rural area in Virginia. It was a small town type of environment, where the major industries were chicken factories, processing plants and farming. A big source of work there is the poultry plants and farming.

I would have never have guessed I would have these opportunities.
Did you ever feel like you were the only person like yourself?

In terms of being really studious? I’m not saying smart, I’m saying studious. Really focused, focused on college at the time… I was probably the only student like that. I never really thought of myself as being smart, but I always looked at myself as being a hard worker. I always had to work hard. You know how some people are naturally smart and don’t need to study?

Yeah. I hate those people.

I didn’t have that ability, I had to study and work hard. In terms of being very focused and studious, I was one of very few who was like that. It was kind of weird; I don’t know where that came from. In terms of doing well in school, I definitely wasn’t the only one. I had many friends that were intelligent and smart.

Did you play any instruments?

No. In middle school I took art classes — I focused more on art. If I could go back, that would be something I would tell middle school Tony, “Learn how to play an instrument.” I’ve always had an interest in music — and I’ve always wanted to play the saxophone. I would have told him that instead of doing shop class to take a music class.

So you played outside a lot?

I was very attentive to nature. I didn’t live on a farm, but there were farms all around me so I spent a lot of time outside. We had woods behind our house.

Did you ever have a professional crisis? Think about throwing in the academic towel?

I think during one’s grad school and post doc years… you have your moments. Things don’t work. Research experiments don’t work out. Everyone gets frustrated. You sometimes question, Is this the right path for me? I remember in high school not doing well one semester of my geometry class and freaking out. And another guidance counselor had advice… “You need to calm down. It’s not that serious. You’re going to be OK.” I would say that throughout the process during those times when things didn’t work out the way I planned. In the end the passion is what gets you back on track and makes you realize, OK, you’re going to be OK. I would say all throughout the process there have been stumbling blocks and challenges, but I’ve been fortunate. I hate giving up. I’m a very persistent person. I think persistence along with the passion would keep me on that path that has gotten me to where I am now. Even now, still, I find myself asking Is this really what I’m supposed to be doing? I have challenges, but I enjoy getting students excited about science and I think I have a more convincing message if I’m doing science.

I think persistence along with the passion would keep me on that path that has gotten me to where I am now.
How many of your discoveries were due to chance? If any?

I would say all of them. The reason I say all of them is because you come up with ideas and a lot of those ideas are based on previous information, but that’s all they are: ideas. You have to test them to find out one way or the other. So, I would say all of them came about by chance — we had no idea what was going to happen. We have predictions, but you just don’t know. If you define chance as randomly doing something and voila! Then I think all of them fall into that category. You have predictions, but unless you are doing something that someone else exactly has done, all this science — data, results — is chance. That’s the way I look at it.

Which of your discoveries would your middle school self be most excited about?

I study a protein that’s believed to be involved in making cancer cells resistant to chemo-therapies. I was, most recently, able to show that when you inhibit or modulate this protein you can make the cells more sensitive to a cancer drug. So basically, my laboratory was able to sensitize pancreatic cancer cells to a chemotherapeutic drug that is usually resistant in that cancer. I think middle school Tony would be impressed…

…that you’re curing cancer?

That he’s adding to the body of knowledge that may one day lead to better treatments. I worry when you say “cure” — “cure” is a big word with big meanings for many people. I tend to say we’re doing things to add to the body of knowledge that may one day help to better treat patients. I think middle school Tony would be most impressed with being able to do stuff that potentially may help patients in the future, by making cancer more sensitive to drugs.

What got you from being excited about fungi in the woods to now doing cancer research?

Good question… So I find a lot of things in biology interesting. When I was in high school I had the opportunity to work under a plant pathologist at a research station that also had entomologists. A lot of people worked together. I don’t think I ever planned on becoming a plant pathologist, but just being exposed to that as a high school student was really cool. I went to college and was a biology major. I didn’t want to specialize because I was so interested in so many different things. I said I would just major in biology and then specialize in grad school. Then while I was an undergraduate at Norfolk State University, I had the opportunity to spend the first summer after my freshman year at NASA and my second summer and third summer at the University of Arizona in the Department of Pharmacology and Toxicology doing toxicology research. I fell in love with it. I liked biology and I liked chemistry, but I didn’t know exactly what I wanted to do, but pharmacology and toxicology really seemed to engulfed all of my passions. So, after graduating, I went to grad school at the University of Arizona in that department. One of my rotations was in a cancer lab — a molecular oncology laboratory — and I just fell in love with that. It’s what led me to studying cancer now — I fell in love with it and I felt like I could potentially make a difference. From fungi to cancer — it was more just that transition of timing and what interested me at that time. I’ve been studying cancer since grad school — studying different types of cancer and how the disease can progress to what it is now.

I think it’s important to follow your passion. You don’t have to have all the answers now. That’s one of the things I don’t think I understood. You don’t have to have all the answers, you don’t have to be perfect. Work hard, but have fun and try to find your passion. Try different things — I think sometimes students get tunnel vision. Try different things to figure out where your passion lies, that’s important. Work hard. Balance working hard and playing hard. Try to find your passion.

You don’t have to have all the answers, you don’t have to be perfect. Work hard but have fun and try to find your passion.
If you could have any super power, what would it be, what would you do with it, and why would you want it?

I think if I could be a superhero it would be Superman, but not for the reason that most people think. I would want to be Superman because of his X-ray vision. The reason why is because one of the issues with cancer is being able to detect it early. We don’t really do a good job of detecting cancer early and that’s why, unfortunately, many people die from it. So if I could be Superman and have X-ray vision and could look at people and see Oh, yeah, you have an early lesion that you need to get checked out — then I could potentially identify cancer early enough to do something about it. So I would be Superman with X-ray vision… I mean the flying and all that stuff, being able to go as fast as a speeding bullet, all that stuff… that would be cool.


Dr. Antonio Baines is an Associate Professor of Biology at North Carolina Central University and part of the Cancer Research Program at NCCU. Additionally he is an adjunct associate professor in Pharmacology in the School of Medicine at UNC Chapel Hill. When he was an intern at NASA everyone called him “Dr. Tony” and it stuck. In his free time he likes to read, go jogging, hang out outside, play basketball, travel and play with his daughter. He’s also a green belt in karate.