During Duerfeldt’s senior year, he was named the Iowa Intercollegiate Athletic Conference baseball MVP, as well as ESPN The Magazine’s Academic All-America Player of the Year. He still holds career marks in batting average and sacrifice flies. But all these accomplishments aren’t subjects he talks about much anymore—instead he shares how he plans to save lives.
“I entered Central College dead-set on going to medical school, so I planned on majoring in biology,” he says. “By the end of my sophomore year, I changed my major to chemistry upon realizing that medical school probably wasn’t the best choice for me.”
He learned about the field of medicinal chemistry during his junior year and knew he had stumbled on the right path.
After losing his life-long best friend, Tim Heggen, to pancreatic cancer in 2002, his life goals were changed forever. He wrote “Playing for a promise,” published on the NCAA website, about how his Central career and the death of his friend impacted his life.
“During our last days together, I promised him I would do something to make a difference,” he wrote. Duerfeldt, Heggen’s family and many friends helped to start the Timothy Yates Heggen Humanitarian Foundation (TYH). It partners with research facilities, humanitarian organizations and civic groups that live up to Tim’s legacy. TYH has donated $10,000 to the Goldman Pancreatic Cancer Research Center at Johns Hopkins University and $30,000 to Save the Rain and the village of Miembani, Tanzania.
Duerfeldt lived up to his promise to Tim in another way, as well. After graduating from Central with a major in chemistry, he enrolled in a graduate program at the University of Kansas. In August 2011, Duerfeldt earned his Ph.D. in medicinal chemistry and now works in the Boger Laboratory at The Scripps Research Institute in La Jolla, Calif.
In April he received an American Cancer Society fellowship, a three-year program that supports the training of postdoctoral researchers. The funding is meant to help scientists like Duerfeldt pursue an independent career in cancer research.
Duerfeldt was awarded the fellowship for a project titled “Design, Synthesis, and Evaluation of Novel Bleomycin Analogs.” In 1966, the discovery of Bleomycins (BLMs) changed how cancer was treated. BLMs do not destroy the immune system while treating cancer, and they are still used in the treatment of lymphomas, head and neck cancers, melanomas and testicular cancers.
“BLMs have been established as attractive therapeutics for the treatment of cancer. However, various other detrimental side effects arise upon the administration of BLM, many of which affect the ability of patients’ lungs to function normally,” Duerfeldt says. Therefore, he and other scientists are working to develop new drugs based on BLMs that are just as effective but not as toxic to the lungs. But developing a more patient-friendly drug is no easy task.
Duerfeldt credits his time at Central for providing the opportunity to succeed in and out of the laboratory. “Chemistry was learned in classrooms from the many amazing professors Central provided, but dedication, commitment and work ethic was learned playing in the dirt with my friends on baseball fields across Iowa,” he wrote in the NCAA article. “The game made it possible to continue a relationship and keep a promise to a friend.”
When his fellowship is complete, Duerfeldt doesn’t know where he will land, but his iron-clad promise will always have something to do with it.
“The possibilities are really endless. What I can tell you is that whatever I end up doing, it will definitely be in the realm of advancing medicine.”