In retrospect: A Q&A with Bob Elde

CBS' departing dean reflects on his early influences, academic career and future plans.

Dean Robert Elde retires this June after 19 years leading the College of Biological Sciences. From spearheading the reorganization of the biological sciences at the University of Minnesota, to creating one of the best undergraduate biology programs in the country, to securing the funding for a new campus center for Itasca Biological Station and Laboratories, he leaves behind an incredible legacy. Even as he continues the work of advancing the college’s teaching and research mission, he took time to reflect back on the forces that shaped him as a scientist, teacher and leader. 

Who inspired you while you were growing up?

A whole village of people inspired me. My parents, each in their own way, made it clear that we were expected to do well in what ever we chose to do. Neither of my parents  attended college but they encouraged us and expected that we would pursue higher education. My father’s willingness to serve on my elementary school PTA, including a few years as chair, stuck with me. As I look back, I realize that his commitment motivated me to be serious about education.

Another key influence in my early life were my teachers. I remember so vividly an exchange with my fifth-grade homeroom teacher, Mr. Beuchelman. He must have recognized in me an inquiring mind that would benefit from perusing more challenging material. One day, he said "Bobby, you’ve been asking questions and I think it would be good for you to look at this book." He handed me his college physics textbook. I was truly awestruck that he thought that much of me and my potential, and entrusted me with that book. There were no college textbooks in my household, so this was a big deal for me. Although I understood virtually nothing, I realize in retrospect what an important signal that was.

Other teachers stepped up in their own way at other points to give me those virtual or figurative pats on the back. It truly was a village that surrounded me, encouraged me and gave me confidence.

How did you become interested in neuroscience?

My interest in neuroscience did not develop until my first year in graduate school here at the University of Minnesota. Very little about the brain was covered in any textbooks or courses I had as an undergraduate, so my first exposure was as a graduate student taking a neuroanatomy course. I entered graduate school fired up by a research project I had undertaken as an honors student at my undergraduate college focusing on the development of the immune system. I intended to pursue research and graduate education in immunology. However, I was, once again, awestruck by the expanse of what I had not experienced. I found it to be an intriguing paradox that I might use my own brain to study the way the brain is built and how it works. That paradox was more eloquently stated in later years by Carl Sagan, the noted astrophysicist, who in his book Broca’s Brain suggested that “as far as we know, the human brain is the most complex thing in the universe.” To me, this seemed like the ultimate challenge.

What were your primary research goals and achievements?

My primary research goal evolved from a sense of unbridled curiosity. How does the brain develop into such a complex organ, what is its final structure, and how does it work? As my graduate studies progressed, I quickly came to learn that I needed a focus. As a graduate student, that focus was to uncover the location and nature of neurons that produced and utilized neuropeptides for intercellular communication. My research centered on the hypothalamus and the known neuropeptides of the early 1970s, namely vasopressin and oxytocin. As a postdoctoral fellow at the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm, Sweden I was privileged to find myself at the epicenter of efforts to understand neuropeptides as possible neurotransmitters in many circuits in many regions of the brain. An important opportunity arose to uncover the neurons and circuits that produced and utilized the endorphins, which had just been discovered. Because endorphins are endogenous opioids, and opiates had been used for centuries in the treatment of pain, my attention was drawn to what was thought to be a simple region of the nervous system, namely the sensory neurons that transduce pain and their connections in the spinal cord and higher levels of the brain. As a new U of M faculty member just back from Stockholm, I worked on uncovering the function of opioids and their receptors as related to pain. Along the way many other molecules were identified that play a role in transducing or inhibiting pain. This led to great research opportunities and, in particular, collaborations with scientists — great scientists — at institutions around the world. I’ve been the beneficiary of amazing discoveries related to the molecular and cellular mechanisms that underlie pain and analgesia.

“Students first” has been your mantra. What did teaching and training students mean to you?

My teaching efforts, even as an undergraduate teaching assistant, were conceptually focused on putting students first. Given teaching opportunities as an undergraduate or graduate student, one is so close to the learning process that it’s basically intuitive. As a new faculty member in the U of M Medical School’s Department of Anatomy (later known as the Department of Cell Biology and Neuroanatomy), I assumed responsibility for teaching first-year medical students and graduate students. My teaching approach was greatly influenced by senior members of the faculty and by colleagues who joined the faculty soon after I came on as an assistant professor.

I learned some particularly powerful lessons about teaching by collaborating with fellow faculty members in creating the neuroscience course for dental students then medical students, and for the graduate program in neuroscience. This process of creating new courses and new curriculum from a fairly blank slate was important in forming my educational philosophy.

When I unwittingly became dean of the College of Biological Sciences, I did what the typical academic would do, I read a book. The book is titled Academic Duty and was authored by Donald Kennedy who had recently stepped down as president of Stanford University. Near the end of that book, he reflects on principles he used to lead Stanford. He said: “[Education’s] improvement must entail putting students and their needs first. Once that is done, the rest falls into place.” That became the source of my mantra and continued throughout my tenure as dean. It is the filter through which I tried to pass every opportunity and every decision.

How did you become interested in governance and administration?

I really did not aspire to become an academic administrator. I had served as the chair and then the founding director of the graduate program in neuroscience at the behest of the then-dean of the graduate school, Robert Holt. Holt became a very important mentor for me and helped guide the launch of that program into a nearly instantaneous success. We stayed in contact and he continued to guide my thinking about academic quality and the role that leadership plays. However, I had no aspiration to take that leadership experience to another level. Some years later, then-president, Nils Hasselmo and provost for art, science and engineering, Philip Shively, as well as then-biochemistry department head Norma Allewell asked me to consider tossing my hat into the ring for the recently vacated position of dean of the College of Biological Sciences. Frankly, it never occurred to me that that was something I would want to do, might do or could do. To my amazement, I was asked to meet with the search committee for an interview. Then, to my even greater amazement, I was called to the provost’s office and offered the position for a period of two years. The role was not interim, but rather I was tasked to lead an effort to reduce the fragmentation of the basic foundational disciplines of biology, and they thought it might take a couple of years. I thought, given my experience with the graduate program in neuroscience, that I might be able to do something in this regard. Now, 19 years later, I find that it has been rewarding in so many surprising ways with multiple challenges and opportunities, some realized, some not. It has been a great ride and I am forever grateful for the confidence placed in me and the mentoring I received.

What role (scientist/teacher/administrator) have you enjoyed most and why?

I’ve often said that the greatest joy of being dean is two-fold: the encounters with incredibly bright, creative undergraduate and graduate students, and the opportunity to be a perpetual student. Serving as dean of the College of Biological Sciences, I’ve been privileged to learn about the latest and greatest discoveries in all fields of biology from the amazing faculty, post-docs and students who are creating this new knowledge. I could never get this from reading textbooks or from trying to keep up with journals, but the daily contact and frequent interactions have enabled me to be a perpetual learner without having to take any exams!

What has changed and what hasn’t changed at the U of M since you arrived?

Everything! Or, almost everything. I came here as a graduate student in 1969. The campus was pretty dismal. I attended a small, liberal arts college in Chicago, but had many occasions to spend time on the campuses of the University of Chicago, Northwestern University and, back in my home state, the University of Washington. All of these campuses had at least a smattering of soaring, Gothic architecture that signaled in my young mind images of the ivory tower at its best. There were no such structures here at the University of Minnesota; nothing on the East Bank, nothing on the emerging West Bank, and nothing in St. Paul. Moreover the existing structures were not well kept but were fairly dingy, bedraggled and bore the scars of the protests of the Vietnam War and Civil Rights Movement.

The student experience was pretty dismal as well. The quarterly process of registration was always a nightmare — standing in endless lines, usually the wrong line, only to be redirected to another line in a different building. What a difference compared to today!

So, the physical attributes of the campus have changed for the better, the student experience has become very positive and a renewed focus on quality has transformed the U of M.

You’ve accomplished a lot at the U of M. What are you most proud of?

I am most proud of the improvements we have made to the undergraduate student experience in CBS. Our teams of faculty and administrators have created, in many regards, undergraduate programs that are the envy of the nation. Nature of Life and the Foundations of Biology courses are clearly signatures that define us as a college. As a consequence, applications for admission have skyrocketed over the last decade and the quality of our students has become very, very impressive. While they are with us, our students inspire and surprise us at every turn. They have created remarkable programs such as Biology Without Borders, the Golden Pipette Awards and a host of service-learning opportunities for fellow students. Our undergraduates go on to great institutions for graduate and professional education, and they are changing the world.

I am also proud of the processes that have led to the cluster hiring of new faculty. This involved creation of new facilities, procurement of resources and the development of a coalition of our faculty that led to thematic emphases such as genome variation, fungal evolution, cellular biophysics and synthetic biology. I am truly amazed by this next generation of faculty who are joining our ranks. They, in combination with our great students, ensure a great future for the college.

What do you want your legacy to be?

This legacy question is difficult for me. I frankly have not given any thought to it or planned my legacy. I have always approached each day, each month, each year as a can-do opportunity. I’m exhilarated by progress, but I’ve learned to be patient with the hope of persevering and eventually achieving goals. As I look back, I guess I imagine my legacy to be that of a marathon distance leader.

What will you miss most?

I will miss people. I believe that we have woven a beautiful fabric of students, faculty and staff that define the College of Biological Sciences as a beautiful and durable textile; one that is both utilitarian and could be used as an area rug on one floor, or to carry this metaphor further, be framed and admired on the wall of a great museum. While I will still enjoy observing this great textile I will no longer be one of its weavers.

What are you going to do in your retirement?

I’m going to be busy. Bonnie and I are in the process of launching an exciting new institution for informal science education. It is called the Hill Country Science Mill ( and is located in the small, small town in central Texas made famous by its most noted son, president Lyndon Baines Johnson. Although it is just 45 miles west of Austin, Texas, its children, and the children of many small rural communities in Texas, and, for that matter, Minnesota and the nation, are disadvantaged in terms of inspiration, role models and support structures for achievement in science, technology, engineering and math.

With the Hill Country Science Mill we intend to provide engaging hands-on, game-based learning opportunities that reinforce the intrinsic curiosity found in each young person. Our goal is to encourage and inspire them to pursue careers in science by staying on track during the perilous times of junior high and high school education with the goal of enrolling in higher education of some form.

Second, my therapy, if you will, over several decades, has been building wooden boats. I’ve nearly completed boat number five and went back to school in the summer of 2012 to take a course in building what I hope to be boat number six. This boat, called the Somes Sound 12 ½, is a much more serious undertaking that will require both space and time that has been impossible to command while serving as dean. At our second home near Johnson City, Texas, I am in the process of building a workshop where I will build boats during the winter and bring them back to Minnesota to use when the water is in liquid, rather than solid, form!

Finally, Bonnie and I have children and grandchildren and parents scattered across the country from coast to coast. We have not been able to see as much of them as we would like and, hopefully, the free time of retirement will allow more frequent interactions. Also, we love to travel the world. In recent years we have traveled to Bhutan, Libya, Corsica and Sardinia, and our bucket list still has a number of other locations around the globe. We hope to be able to visit many of these amazing parts of our world and further our understanding of the global societies and ecosystems in which we live.