One of the brighter spots in the difficult 2011 New England Revolution season happened when Zak Boggs beat out the Quakes’ own Chris Wondolowski for the MLS W.O.R.K.S. Humanitarian of the Year award. Unaccustomed to losing awards last season, chalk one up for Wondo, who scored the winning goal in this weekend’s 1-0 victory over the New England Revolution, opening the 2012 San Jose Earthquakes campaign. Given that Zak was injured for this season’s opener and did not travel with the New England team, it might be considered a somewhat hollow victory if you perceive a rivalry between the two players.
As a Quakes fan, I was disappointed for Wondo in 2011, but as a scientist in the biotechnology industry what particularly caught my attention was the reason for Zak Boggs’s victory as Humanitarian of the Year - he received the award for volunteering his time at the laboratory bench in a prestigious cancer research laboratory. That’s not something you see every day, and I wanted to find out more.
Zak attended the University of South Florida on a soccer scholarship, where he played a crucial role in the Bulls’ first ever BIG EAST championship in 2008, finishing as the team’s second-leading scorer and earning All-Tournament Team honors. He was acquired by the Revolution in the second round (31st overall) of the 2010 MLS SuperDraft, and in 2011 made twenty regular-season appearances, including sixteen starts - eight as a forward, two in central midfield and six on the right wing. Here are the first clues as to the versatility of this young man - he can fulfill several roles on the pitch, where he’s an energetic attacking combination midfielder and forward.
On and off the field Zak has gained a reputation for his steadfast work ethic, and the choice of a BS in Biomedical Science is by no means a soft academic option. On behalf of Center Line Soccer, I recently had the opportunity to talk to Zak about his academic selections. Early in our conversation Zak clearly articulated his love of science and personal drive to help patients. His decision to study biomedical science was was heavily influenced by his parents’ careers: "My father is a surgeon, and my mom is a registered nurse practitioner... To be honest there was never anything else I wanted to study." His mom’s influence also introduced him to volunteering, which he continued under his own steam at the Moffitt Cancer Center while he was in graduate school at USF.
Yes, I said graduate school - it turns out that Zak is as diligent in the classroom as he is agile on the soccer field. Zak graduated early from the University of Southern Florida with a 4.0 average earning degree in biomedical sciences in May 2009. He was nominated by USF for the highly-competitive and prestigious Rhodes, Marshall and Fulbright academic scholarships - a significant achievement in itself. Not one to let his professional soccer career get in the way of graduate school, he continued, and successfully completed, his masters degree in marketing after he moved to Boston when he was selected by the Revolution.
Once Zak settled in Boston, he researched which local laboratories were working in his primary medical interest of angiogenesis (the process by which growing cancer tumors develop their own blood supply). Serendipitously, the laboratory in which Zak now works is in the same institution where the study of angiogenesis began - "I had wanted to get involved in the actual lab research, and so what better place to do it than Children’s Hospital Boston?" Once or twice a week, rather than sit back and relax after hours of morning practice in Foxboro, Zak hops on the train into Boston to put in four hours of laboratory work. Since 2010, he has been snapping on latex gloves, donning a white coat and settling in for the afternoon at the research bench in the laboratory of Dr Marsha Moses, a professor at Harvard Medical School and the Director of the Vascular Biology Program at Children's Hospital Boston. Obviously, this is no academic backwater - this is a hard working, well-respected and extensively published research laboratory.
Zak’s journey to the Moses laboratory began with a prospective email and ended with an interview in which he took just five minutes to land the job. "She just wanted to know what my goal was out of this, and basically she said, ‘once I saw that you were and Eagle Scout, that was all I needed to know,’" he chuckled. Many volunteers work with the patients at Children’s Hospital Boston, but Zak’s science background and passion to acquire laboratory experience surely contributed to him being hired into their research projects.
At the laboratory bench (which he keeps uncommonly tidy by the way) Zak works on sample preparation to measure diagnostic proteins in urine - and for biotech geeks that includes spectroscopy, zymography, and Western blots. Just like soccer, medical research is a team effort - "Without a doubt it’s a team effort...[I’m] in the lab, but it goes beyond the lab...there are so many people that you don’t even see." All the while, handling samples from the littlest patients has led to a new perspective on his place in the scheme of things - "I was doing some stuff for the brain cancer project last year, and you get a vial of spinal fluid and urine that comes with it, and you see how old these kids are, two and three years old having brain tumors," he said seriously, "certainly [perspective] is one of the main things I get out of it."
For the time being Zak remains the receiving end of the medical treatment process, impatiently waiting for his ankle to heal so he can return to the field. He continues with the same laboratory endeavors that earned him the 2011 MLS Humanitarian of the Year award. The unusual route by which he expresses his humanitarian side has also paid him back with a chance to retreat from Foxboro, meet people with a different outlook, and which he appears to find refreshing - "I’ve made some great friends there," he enthused.
Whether or not Chris and Zak will duke it out for this year’s MLS humanitarian award remains to be seen - Chris Wondolowski will continue his support of Street Soccer USA - a non-profit organization that seeks to end homelessness through sports. The unbalanced MLS schedule means that the next award might be the only other time that the pair will meet in competition this year. Whatever happens, the humanitarian efforts of both players benefit so many people that while they might be considered rivals, in my eyes, neither player loses.
At the close of our conversation I asked Zak where he thought all of his academic and laboratory training would take him when his playing days are over. He replied, "I don’t want to limit myself because I don’t know what’s going to happen, so I don’t want to lock into one certain thing, but I definitely want to be a doctor someday. It’s always been a goal of mine to do that – I don’t know in what capacity, or what kind of doctor, but I definitely want to go to medical school." With his academic achievements, hands on experience, and drive to succeed, undoubtedly it will be difficult for any medical school to turn him down.
(Photo courtesy of MLSsoccer.com)