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Reflections on nearly 50 years on the University of Minnesota faculty

What’s your primary research interest?

My laboratory led the elucidation of enzymes that allow a group of bacteria to grow by oxidizing ammonia. This is a step in the inorganic nitrogen cycle and significant to agriculture and to the health of waters. These “nitrifying” bacteria oxidize nitrogen of ammonia fertilizer to nitrate thereby making it soluble and thus accessible to plants. One of the enzymes also is used in the bacterial anaerobic oxidation of ammonia, a recently discovered process accounting for a major new step in the nitrogen cycle. With a major involvement of biophysicist colleagues we determined much of the structure and mechanisms of these enzymes.

How were CBS and the University of Minnesota different when you began?

Overall, I was fortunate to begin my education and work in the expansive era following the Depression and WWII. The world has since reached limits reflected by availability of jobs and funding.

I was hired by the Zoology department to teach cell biology and biochemistry in the Fall of 1963, prior to the formation of CBS. The equivalent of CBS at the undergraduate level were the Botany and Zoology departments (CLA). Things were on a smaller scale with more diversity of discipline within a unit. Zoology was governed with a strong sense of collegiality by the faculty and a chairman.

A major evolution began with the formation of CBS and concept of a “single campus” linking St. Paul and Minneapolis. This gained reality as the intercampus bus acquired a separate transit way. The St. Paul Department of Agricultural Biochemistry joined CBS. Zoology and Botany fragmented and Genetics and Cell Biology and Ecology, Evolution and Behavior came into existence. Bob Elde led a major reorganization that merged the CBS and Medical School biochemistry departments, formed the Genetics, Cell Biology and Development department and made the BioTechnology Institute (a Vic Bloomfield initiative) independent. Formal interaction increased between the basic science departments and the traditionally applied science and technical departments in the schools of medicine and agriculture.

There has been an ongoing administrative tension between the needs of basic versus applied research and training. Applied research has long been important in the engineering sciences and has gained influence in the biological sciences. This has been accompanied by a greater drive to attract private and alumni funds to supplement federal and state funding and tuition. There has also been a trend to follow business principles and organizational models within the University of Minnesota.

New buildings! Biological Sciences Center; Ecology; Molecular and Cellular Biology; Cargill; Hasselmo Hall; the Magnetic Resonance Research Center; the Wallin Biomedical Science Building; and soon the Biomedical Discovery District, and the Itasca Campus Center. To say nothing of the stadium and soon the light rail!

I’ve seen changes in Minnesota demographics reflected in my grade books. Hispanic, Vietnamese, Hmong, Ethiopian, Somali faces and accents began to appear in my classes. For many years there were multiple Johnsons, Andersons, or Smiths and later the Nguyens, Ngos, Lees etc. The Hmong students were the first or second generation to learn a written language.

There are today more women students, and we don’t call them girls! The increase in women faculty in the college is remarkable. This was greatly facilitated by the historic 1980 legal mandate requiring the University of Minnesota to change hiring procedures. Paradoxically, it resulted from a letter in a departmental file stating that the discipline was not a place for women!

In the 1970s, departments for African American, Women’s, Chicano and Native American studies were formed.

There seems to have been a progression from farm children to children whose parents and now grandparents had farms. We have generally more urban or suburban students. Average income and level of preparation have probably increased. All this may correlate with the growth of the community colleges, state colleges, University of Minnesota coordinate campuses, and students with AP credit

How has your field evolved over the time you’ve been here?

In graduate school, the hot paper of my first semester showed that DNA was the hereditary material! It has been amazing to live in the times when the comparison of human DNA sequences validated, in chemical terms, the concept of humans as a single family. The coherence of this observation with the tree of linguistic relationships and with physical anthropology has been a beautiful intellectual achievement. The existence of DNA sequences for even extinct early humans enables each of us to access amazing elements of our own family histories. I think this will be increasingly valuable for a nation consisting almost entirely of immigrants and migrants greatly separated from knowledge of our roots.

How did you contribute to that evolution?

Mostly by bringing the word to students. Within biochemistry, cellular and molecular biology the growth of knowledge and analytical capability has been astonishing. What were smudges in the light microscope are now known as aggregates of precisely understood molecules. It has enabled us to even describe the major categories of events that, in millions of steps, each signaling a later one, result in the development of a human from fertilized egg. Biophysics has enabled depiction of enzymes at the molecular level and magnetic spectroscopy has allowed analysis at the electronic and nuclear level; revealing mechanism. Thinking of this change makes me empathize with an elderly relative who had gone west in a covered wagon and lived through the flu epidemic.  

What people stand out from your time here, whether colleagues or students?

I’ve been very lucky with wonderful, smart, experienced undergrads, graduate students, postdocs, lab techs through times of excitement, camaraderie, triumph and struggle. We’ve been lucky to engage peripherally with the unique group of magnetic spectroscopists led by professors Lipscomb and Que, “The Metalloprotein Interest Group”, MPIG. The work of David Tilman, Stephen Polasky and Jason Hill, from ecology and applied economics, on biofuels also has been impressive.

What are some unusual, important or amusing things that happened to you during your years here?

I was a 25-year-old fresh Ph.D. when I arrived here from Baltimore. I knew I was in a good place when a store accepted a Baltimore check for purchase of a fold-out couch for my efficiency at Harvard and East River Rd. (now Fairview Hospital!).

The first 12 years were compelling. Civil rights, Viet Nam War, worker safety, ecology, women’s rights. There were tense times that included personal threats related to my opposition to American involvement in Viet Nam.

In the mid ‘60s Professor Dave Merrell told me that high-school biology teachers in his summer school evolution course got excellent grades but the majority indicated privately that they did not believe in evolution.

Numerous small things come to mind:

A touching moment when a young Hmong woman who, on a visit to the Tropics Room of the Botany Greenhouse, lingered and said wistfully “its just like a path in the jungle outside the village at home”.      

A week before the Zoology building was demolished in 1994 to be replaced by Hasslemo Hall, my uncle, who earned a Ph.D. in zoology in 1947, standing in the door of the histology lab with his wife, an undergraduate nutrition major, pointing at a seat and saying “you sat there when we met.”  

Times when students laughed at my one-liners (ubiquitin pronounced you-b-quittin). Occasionally seeing that an entire room full were looking attentive and relaxed.

Snow days. The cities stopped, people skied down major arteries and the campus was magically quiet. Days when everyone smiled at each other, rested and caught up. Generally, the bright blue winter skies and white snow cover were beautiful. The harshness of the winter seemed to create a regional culture of people helping each other. We rarely have snow days now, and the growing season has increased by a month since I have been here.

What are among the important things you tried to convey to students?

Think critically and trust your judgment. Learn to speak up confidently. Acknowledge when you discover that you have been wrong; appreciate that you no longer have to waste time on a misconception. Worrying too much about being wrong can limit inquiry.           

What’s the most important thing you learned as a teacher?

Be myself and trust my judgment. Not hesitate to report my errors. Help students take charge and form their own intellectual relationship with the material. Realize that students may often fully understand and appreciate things only years after my course.

What are some of the benefits of an academic career?

One is the independence to develop varied lines of interest. This several times resulted in productive endeavors internationally. On a sabbatical in 1969 my group began collaboration in Montpellier, France, which lasted 12 years and resulted in a dozen publications. As co-chair of the US Committee for Scientific Cooperation with Viet Nam (1968 – 1985), I twice visited research groups in Biology and Agriculture across Viet Nam, and authored a report on their activities that was used by scientists to identify potential colleagues. I hosted Vietnamese scientists lecturing at the University of Minnesota in agronomy, surgery, physics and others. The greatest interest in the microbiology of inorganic compounds is in Netherlands, UK and Germany, resulting in many invitations to speak there. In 1968 I taught molecular biology at a six-week summer institute for college teachers that took place at Dacca University, East Pakistan (now Bangladesh).

In 1969 I designed an undergraduate course called “The Social Uses of Biology” to consider human circumstances in the global ecosystem. Most lecturers were professionals, academics or activists. Case studies included the holocaust, climate change, education, health care, midwest agriculture and the Gulf dead zone, trade balance in southern Minnesota agriculture, history of the White Earth Reservation. Ethics was a common theme. This type of course is now offered through the Biology, Society and the Environment major in CLA.

The protection of tenure enables faculty to think independently and requires that it be without vested interest. With benefits come responsibilities; quality teaching and research and managing the University. Since faculty are among the most highly trained and thoughtful of citizens, their tenure also involves a heightened responsibility to contemplate the course of society and contribute to the public discourse. I feel this is especially true of scientists whose inclination and training lead to a habit of critical thinking and high standards of verification of what is true. I value science and engineering as having, over human history, become the strongest repository of a tradition of objective truth.

These days the stakes are high and call for analysis and commentary by scientists. As a group, scientists probably have not been active enough. In a country that perceives of having unlimited natural capacity, decisions have been made by politics, “market forces” and “military-economic enforcement.” But the Earth has reached its population capacity and requires a social mechanism in which the common good for the future has a greater role. There is, of course, a tension between appropriate isolation and engagement on the part of academia but engagement needs to increase.

What will you miss most about the U?

Teaching. The pleasure of sharing an obsession for research and the joy of discovery. There is no better place, worldwide, with as exceptional analytical facilities and expert colleagues for carrying out research in my discipline. I have been very lucky.

What won’t you miss at all?

Being too busy to enjoy my work, relate to colleagues, and do the job as well as I would have liked. The national politics of competing for research grant funding.

How do you plan to spend your retirement?

I’ll experience life without a professional responsibility! Who knows how I might change? I will travel to reconnect with friends and scientific collaborators. I will continue to parent my daughter Nadja Leonhard-Hooper and possibly return to teach if needed. I’ll continue analysis and advocacy of public policy related to easing humanity’s transition to geochemically imposed limits.