Ken Stuart

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Working-class kid builds major research institute starting in strip mall | 

That’s the abbreviated story of Ken Stuart, founder of Seattle Biomed.

To look at the new building that today houses the Seattle Biomedical Research Institute (full name), listen to Stuart’s Boston accent and sit in the middle of Monday evening’s posh event marking this local research organization’s 35 anniversary, you might think Stuart came from privilege.

Tom Paulson

Ken Stuart, center, founder of Seattle Biomed, talks with Gates Foundation's Tachi Yamada

“My dad was a house painter and my mother a home-maker,” said Stuart, who grew up the youngest of four sons in the working-class Boston neighborhood of Brighton.

He could always walk across the Charles River and wander around MIT or Harvard, but when he finished high school Stuart at first just figured he’d go get a job and leave college life to the upper-class Brahmin.

“My parents didn’t really have the money for me to go to college,” he said.

But Stuart then discovered a program at Boston’s Northeastern University that allowed you attend classes for one term, work a term and alternate on that basis to pay your way through college.

He ended up working on an experimental farm, majoring in biology. Something about the science of life hooked him pretty early on, an obsession that blossomed into a full-fledged research addiction while doing a masters at Wesleyan University in Middletown, Connecticut.

“I discovered protozoan parasites and what we would now call part of global health, neglected infectious diseases,” said Stuart, who was and is still today primarily interested in African sleeping sickness. “I was fascinated. I couldn’t believe nobody was working on these things.” Continue reading