A legacy of excellence

As David Bernlohr prepares to retire after four decades, his impact as a leader, researcher and educator continue to reverberate.
June 13, 2024

Dave Bernlohr’s office is filled with mementos. Every surface offers up evidence of a life spent immersed in teaching and research. Photos of lab group outings. Dozens of lanyards from conferences he’s participated in over the years. Nature of Life and graduate program T-shirts. These objects hint at the deep connection and lasting impact the longtime professor and head of the Department of Biochemistry, Molecular Biology and Biophysics (BMBB) has had over his tenure. He will step down as head of the department this summer and retire at the end of 2024, leaving the department on an upward trajectory reflecting years of exceptional leadership. 

Minnesota roots

Bernlohr joined the then-Department of Biochemistry faculty in 1985. It was a homecoming of sorts. He grew up in Roseville, MN, and spent his childhood in close proximity to campus. His father was also a professor in the University’s biochemistry department on the Minneapolis campus – one of two at the time – which focused on physiological chemistry and medical biochemistry. When it was time to go off to college, he didn’t go far, opting to study biochemistry at the University of Minnesota. Professor Emeritus John S. Anderson, a figure beloved by generations of College of Biological Sciences (CBS) students, served as his advisor. 

Bernlohr recalls spending lots of time working in the lab as an undergraduate, sometimes at the expense of attending class. When it was time to graduate, he found himself short of qualifying by a single credit. Advisors and staff helped him arrange an examination for credit in a decidedly non-scientific subject – softball. A former baseball player with a strong throwing arm, he aced the written exam and proved an overachiever in the practice portion of the test as well. “The instructor and I played catch on the lower level of the St. Paul campus gym as part of the exam. I promptly put a ball through the then-infirmary window,” he says with a laugh. He graduated on time.

Bernlohr left Minnesota to attend graduate school at the University of Illinois, Champaign-Urbana and then went on to a postdoctoral position at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine. Those experiences set the stage for a successful career in academia. 

At the University of Illinois, Bernlohr was advised by Robert Switzer. CBS alum Cheryl Quinn (B.S. Biochemistry and Microbiology, ’85) pursued her graduate degree in the same lab with encouragement from BMBB advisors and notes that Bernlohr’s reputation for exceptional scientific acumen was still alive and well in the lab a decade later. 

“Dave holds the record for fastest Ph.D. completion in the Switzer lab,” she says. “We are all proud to call him our ‘scientific brother’ and I felt extra pride in having shared Minnesota roots.”

Serving with distinction

Bernlohr returned to the University of Minnesota in 1985, drawn back by the access to a medical center, a priority for his research program. He was hired by Victor Bloomfield, who was the head of biochemistry in CBS at the time. “I was impressed by his science, his pleasant personality and his unusually broad vision,” he says.

Back at the U of M, Bernlohr quickly distinguished himself as a research star evidenced by his record of achievement ever since. His lab has been continuously funded by the NIH for four decades. His research, which focuses broadly on the role of tissue that stores fat in human health and disease, continues to yield insights. His lab has published 200 papers to date with several publications still in the pipeline. He was named a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology.  

He was instrumental in developing a plan (and the name!) for merging the then-separate CBS and Medical School biochemistry departments in 1997. He helped expand the scope to include molecular biology and biophysics as well. By 1995, he was an associate professor and head of the reorganized department, an opportunity he embraced despite his very active research program and early career stage. 

BMBB is now home to top researchers in molecular biology, biophysics, synthetic biology, metabolism and aging. Under his leadership, BMBB rose to be the #1 biochemistry department in the Blue Ridge Medical Research rankings. These rankings are based on departments’ success in attracting National Institutes of Health (NIH) funding. 

“We've gone from a pretty modest research operation to a national research powerhouse,” says Bernlohr. “That’s been enjoyable.”

Developing a deep bench

Bernlohr derives particular satisfaction from recruiting and mentoring faculty. When he first joined the department, he was one of a dozen faculty members. That number has more than tripled to 40. Most of the current faculty were hired during his time as department head.

Mentoring early-career faculty has been a particular priority. A decade ago, BMBB introduced a cohort-based structure for accomplishing this goal. Assistant professors meet on a regular basis with senior faculty to discuss ideas, address obstacles and share insights. 

Associate Professor Michael Smanski reflects on the value of experience as an early-career faculty member. “It was a great experience because the junior faculty benefited from the wisdom and experience of the seasoned veterans in terms of grantsmanship and strategy,” he says. “Senior faculty benefited from the enthusiasm, new ideas and cutting-edge methods that the new professors brought to the group.” Smanski attributes the group’s success to Bernlohr’s commitment to the group. He never missed a meeting.

Leading by example

One other object in his office with special meaning for Bernlohr is a black commencement robe, which hangs on the back of the door all year round. It’s a reminder of the importance of educating the next generation of biologists. Even with all his other responsibilities, he consistently taught and mentored undergraduates over the years, and regularly engaged with students through town hall meetings, Nature of Life and other collegiate events.

Lester Drewes, a professor and former head of the Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology within the University of Minnesota Medical School, Duluth campus, describes him as a strategic thinker who leads by example in research, teaching, grants and mentoring. “As department head, he excelled in all those areas - going well beyond what is expected.”

Bernlohr’s approach is informed by his own experience. He made a point of staying involved in teaching, research and service. “I've always had an active research lab, and I've always taught,” he says. “I do everything that the average faculty member does.” 

Yet, the results are far from average. 

“Dave is humble about his numerous awards, generously crediting others who have helped him along the way,” says Quinn, herself a distinguished biotechnology leader. “But only people with a special intellect and personality achieve what he has, and we are lucky that CBS has been his home for so many years.” - Stephanie Xenos