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Witold Cieplak | In Memoriam

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Witold Cieplak Jr. was born in 1951 in Gelsenkirchen, Germany, to Irene and Witold Cieplak. Irene Arns grew up in a large German family of musicians and Witold Senior was a former soldier with the Polish army. Witold and family moved to the United States when he was nine months old, arriving first in Baltimore, Maryland with a group of other Polish emigrants. They soon settled in Detroit, Michigan, where his brother Sigmund was born.

In school, Vito excelled in athletics like track and field, swimming, and particularly baseball, playing for the Warren Torpedoes little league team and later in the class D leagues in Michigan.

However, Vito passed up on a potential baseball career playing shortstop to continue his education at the University of Michigan, where he excelled academically, pursuing a major in physical anthropology. In summers he worked as a delivery driver and at a sheet metal fabricator, instilling in him an adversarial relationship with authority figures and a love of powerful machinery. Between classes he learned to play the electric guitar, cultivating a love of blues music from Texas and elsewhere.

He continued his education at the Arizona State University, where he joined the anthropology department and studied galagos and other primates. In that department he met a fellow primate researcher, a young woman from Mexico City named Susana, and the two began dating as he shifted his studies from anthropology to biological sciences.

They moved to Dallas together, and two were soon married. There Vito obtained his doctorate in immunology from the University of Texas (Health Science Center at Dallas).

His first son Gordon was born in Dallas in 1984, shortly before the family moved to Hamilton, Montana, where Vito completed his post-doctorate work at Rocky Mountain Laboratories. His second son, Matthew, was born in Hamilton in 1986.

At RML, Vito distinguished himself by helping to isolate a toxin protein for Bordetella pertussis, helping to develop a new, safer vaccine for the disease known as whooping cough. He also identified surface proteins on Borrelia bergdorferi, the bacterium that causes Lyme disease, and published extensive research characterizing Campylobacter jejuni, a major cause of food poisoning.

After several years in the public sector, Vito moved, literally, across town to work at Ribi Immunochem, a major developer of adjuvants. Vito stayed with the company when it was acquired by Corixa Pharmaceuticals, and continued to work there on the production of a vaccine for melanoma.

In the early 2000s, Witold and Susana went their separate ways, and he moved to Seattle to continue his research, while Gordon and Matthew moved to New York and California respectively. Vito worked for a time at Glaxo Smith Kline, before taking on new research at several biotech startups in Seattle, including Trubion, Theraclone Sciences, Immunedesign, and Icosavax. There he worked on a number of clinical trials, regulatory applications, and process design.

In Washington, Vito enjoyed kayaking in the inlets of the Puget sound, hiking on the Olympic peninsula, and visiting the local rifle ranges of Kitsap County.

Vito retired from his full-time position in the summer of 2018, although he continued to take responsibility for a number of ongoing projects, demonstrating a lifelong commitment to his work and to his colleagues.

He passed away early in January of 2019 and is survived by his mother Irene, his brother Sigmund, and his sons.

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