Once a Gopher, always a Gopher

You can take a University of Minnesota fan out of Minnesota, but you can’t take a fan’s enthusiasm for his alma mater out of him.
March 29, 2021

Case in point: Carl V. Barnes, MD, FACP (B.S., summa cum laude, Genetics and Cell Biology ’92). After completing medical school at the U in 1998, Carl moved out of state for an internship at the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus and completed his residency in internal medicine there in 2001. He now works as an internist at the Veteran Administration medical center in Aurora and is a clinical instructor at the University of Colorado’s School of Medicine. 

Colorado’s mild winters have kept him from moving back to Minnesota, but he stays tied to the U. He connects with students each year who have received the College of Biological Sciences Genetics, Cell Biology and Development (GCD) Scholarship, which he initiated in 2001, and last September he displayed his Gopher pride (and sense of humor) by participating in the annual U of M Day of Service. Using the hashtag #GopherGoFor and a Goldy Gopher doll adorned with a buck-toothed facemask as a mascot on the fundraising web pages he created, he encouraged donors to #GopherGoForAWalk for the Sudden Arrhythmia Death Syndromes Foundation, #GopherGoForAClimb for the Range of Motion Project or #GopherGoForARun with the Colorado Veterans Project’s Memorial Day Run. These events were virtual in 2020 due to the COVID pandemic, but in other years, Carl has walked, climbed, ran and even marched with active military personnel while carrying a 25-pound pack on his back in a 30K rucksack race to help these organizations.

He likes to stay active and took up running eight years ago. “It was something I could go out and do, as I always had excuses for not doing anything,” he said. His family enjoys chiding him for his choice of athletic shoes: plain men’s white running shoes from Walmart. “They are the best shoes and they are exactly $10,” he laughed. “I run with those for two or three months and then go get a new pair.” 

One big Gopher family

If there was a word to describe a large band of gophers—like a gaggle of geese, a gang of elk or a grist of bees—it would define the Barnes family. They’re all Gophers—with plenty of Gopher lore.

His mother, Cynthia Barnes (BSN, Nursing ’65), met his father, Wes, at the now-defunct Big 10 restaurant and bar in Stadium Village while they were both attending the U. Wes, who went on to a career with the U.S. Postal Service, has bragging rights to a significant piece of Gopher history: He and some friends drove out to Los Angeles in 1962 and witnessed the Golden Gophers’ big win at the Rose Bowl. It was the last time the Gophers played in that game, and they beat UCLA 21-3. 

Carl’s maternal grandmother, Grace L. Hansen, was a teacher who earned her credentials at Moorhead State Teachers College (now Minnesota State University Moorhead) but went on to receive a bachelor’s degree from the U in 1967 and worked toward a master’s in education. “She had a deep love for the school,” he said. At age 90, she was thrilled to accompany her grandson to the CBS Scholarship Dinner in fall 2009, when it was held at the new TCF Bank Stadium. 

Carl’s stepmother, Mary Ann Blechinger (MPH, School of Public Health ’86), a retired nurse, has held season tickets to Gopher hockey since 1987, and before COVID, attended the Frozen Four each year with Wes. Carl’s late stepfather, Frank Fazekas, gets an honorary Gopher title, as he received a lung transplant at the U at age 65, while Carl was in medical school. 

Carl followed his brothers, Charlie (BS, Biology ’90; PhD, Plant Pathology ’03) and Steve (B.A., Psychology ’92), to the U. The Barnes line of Gophers expanded when Charlie met Maria Ordoñez (PhD, Plant Pathology ’06) while working in the same CBS lab as they pursued their doctorates. They married and after more than a decade living in Ecuador, Maria’s home country, they are now living in California where Charlie works as a plant pathologist for the U.S. Forest Service. 

Influential characters

A career in medicine wasn’t on Carl’s radar when he enrolled in the College of Liberal Arts in fall 1988. He had intended to pursue a law degree after his undergraduate work, but a genetics class during a summer session changed that plan. “It was just at the time the Human Genome Project had been proposed,” he said. “It piqued my interest,” and led him to select Genetics and Cell Biology as his major.

There are people and experiences in CBS that continue to impact Carl’s life, he said. “I can’t underscore enough the importance of doing research and teaching CBS had on me.”

Working with Prof. Bill Herman, Carl’s honors research advisor, in his Monarch butterfly lab was instrumental in spurring his path to medical school. There, he was tasked with removing the corpus allatum, a neuroendocrine gland that generates juvenile hormone, from the top of butterfly brains. 

“I figured if I could do brain surgery on a butterfly, I could probably achieve something in the realm of medicine,” he said. Yet, his favorite Dr. Herman story was a trip to clover fields in western Wisconsin to collect Monarchs. Afterward, Herman bought Carl lunch, and though the professor probably just needed an extra set of hands, that personal time was a meaningful experience, he said.

After graduation and before medical school, Carl worked as a teaching assistant in the late Prof. Val Woodward’s class Heredity and Human Society, an introductory genetics class for nonscience majors that addressed the ethical and social aspects of genetics. It spurred his interest in medical ethics—and gave him a chance to participate in Dr. Woodward’s weekly racquetball games with his post-docs at the Aquatic Center on campus. 

“He would consistently beat everyone half his age—he must have been in his 60s at that time,” Carl said. 

The person who gets top billing as role model is his mother, Cynthia, who was very active with the Minnesota Nurses Association (MNA), advocating for the advancement of domestic violence legislation and, through her union, representing nurses’ rights for workplace protection in times of illness or injury. 

“It is from her that I get most of my values, a shared commitment to patient care and advocacy of one’s profession (she’s still active with the MNA), passion for voluntarism (she does get-out-the-vote calling and volunteers at church) and donates money to various causes,” he said. His older brothers were also mentors. 

“My parents divorced when I was 7, so my brothers were my surrogate male role models,” he said. “Both of them were father figures, big brothers, best friends all rolled into one.”

Reconciling a family’s medical history

Carl’s interest in genetics comes into his work today through what he calls the Family Medical History Reconciliation Project. He and his students at UC have been engaged in a project that seeks to enhance the accuracy of patients’ family medical history so they can get relevant health screenings, he explained. 

For more than 20 years, the U.S. Surgeon General has made Thanksgiving the official day when people should take advantage of being with family and do their part to learn more about—or reconcile—their family’s medical history and then bring that information to their providers to get it into their electronic health record. 

“Yet, this doesn’t happen,” Carl said. “Thanksgiving should be reserved for overeating, watching football and arguing about politics. I propose reconciling on ‘Gopher Day.’ On Gopher Day, you reconcile medical history with a different relative.” 

His hope is that having conversations with family members about the family’s health history will help patients understand their need for screening tests to help prevent illnesses that may be part of their family legacy. 

Twenty years of role-modeling

Carl had just finished his medical residency when he decided to fund a scholarship in CBS. “I felt this sense of ‘I made it,’ and even though I was $65,000 in debt, I knew I was going to be able to pay that off,” he said, and also that he could have benefited from some assistance himself as an undergraduate and medical student.

This fall will mark the 20th year of awarding the GCD Scholarship to a CBS undergrad. Carl has kept all the letters from students who have been awarded the scholarship since 2002. The first recipient wrote about her high school biology teacher, who “made the biological processes so intriguing” that she chose to pursue a degree in CBS.

That’s another example of role-modeling, Carl said. And so is helping students with tuition costs. He’s hoping these scholarships set an example that will spur scholarship recipients to begin their own role modeling. —Kristal Leebrick