For Phil Kish, go-kart racing is a family affair. It all started with a Porsche.

“(My wife and I) bought a race car together before we got married. I talked her into it,” he says.

Clearly, it was a good investment. Kish and his wife Fran are members of the Porsche Club of America. They are actively involved in organizing the national meeting that occurs annually across the country.

As his family grew, go-kart racing seemed like a natural next step for Kish. “My youngest son was 14 and he couldn’t drive the Porsche on a race track. He said, ‘How about kart racing?’” Kish explains. Becoming a driver is as simple as buying a go-kart and taking an introductory class, so children under 16 can join in the fun, he says. “The motto in our family is work hard, play hard,” he says.

Since then, Kish, his wife and his two sons have competed in regional series and events throughout the Midwest. His younger son even had a regional championship under his belt while in high school.

Phil Kish, a laboratory research specialist senior, also races go-karts. Photo by Dave Frechette.

When he isn’t on the race track, Kish is busy in his position as a laboratory research specialist senior in Ophthalmology & Visual Sciences at the Kellogg Eye Center. His hours can range from 6 in the morning to 10 at night, depending on the needs of his project. “Some of the experiments are long. But that keeps it fun; it’s not a 9-to-5 job,” he says. 

Kish uses zebrafish to research regeneration of the extra-ocular muscle. Zebrafish, which share 70-85 percent of their genes with humans, are extraordinary because “they can regenerate the entire muscle in about a week to 10 days,” he says. His project could have significant impact for surgical patients who have sustained trauma to their eyes, as well as for patients with strabismus (crossed eyes).

“Eye surgery in humans can lead to scarring and fibrosis,” Kish says. “Our question is, what can we do that makes human eye muscles regenerate better?” Results could have benefits for cancer research as well. Years before finding this project, Kish was a faculty member in Neurosurgery’s brain tumor lab at U-M for seven years. His continued interest in cancer research led him to the Opthalmology lab in the first place.

Kish graduated from U-M with a Bachelor of Science in biology in 1974, followed by a Ph.D. in toxicology from Albany Medical College and a postdoc in neuroscience here at U-M. Kish combined these degrees to study genetic alterations and development of gliomas and other forms of brain cancer. He also spent a decade in the private sector in the drug delivery industry. He returned to U-M in 2010 to work on the regeneration study with Dr. Alon Kahana, an ophthalmic surgeon and Helmut F. Stern Career Development Professor of Ophthalmology and Visual Sciences. They have discovered that many genes associated with regeneration can also be turned on in cancer.

At the lab, Kish manages a team of graduate students, technicians and undergraduates. With multiple sub-projects and experiments happening all at once, days in the lab are often long and chaotic, but the work is rewarding. Kish loves the time he spends teaching students, and seeing their “fresh, inquisitive faces. They’re looking to be the next greatest physician, researcher, whatever. It’s fun to see them develop.”

At the end of a hard day’s work, Kish sometimes takes the team out to a track in East Lansing to “play around with the karts.” It’s both a bonding event and a reward for progress made in the lab. “When we go out, we play very, very hard.”