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Questions and Answers: Vic Bloomfield

Vic BloomfieldWho inspired you while you were growing up?

I had two like-minded friends in junior high and high school (we'd now probably be called "nerdy") who spurred each other on. Amazingly, out of a graduating class of 160 in our small rural high school, all three of us went on to get PhDs in physical chemistry, through quite separate paths. So I guess our chemistry and physics teachers were pretty important in our development. The physics teacher took us on a field trip to UC Berkeley, where we saw the newly-developed synchrotron in operation. That was exciting, and really enhanced my desire to go to Berkeley.  A lot of my scientific taste was developed by reading the popular books of George Gamow, who wrote engagingly about quantum physics and astrophysics.

How did you become interested in biochemistry?

My interest has not been so much in traditional biochemistry as in the physical understanding of biology at the molecular level—what used to be called "biophysical chemistry" or "physical biochemistry" and is now called "molecular biophysics". I didn't know that such an area existed until my junior year at UC Berkeley, where I was a chemistry major. I took physical chemistry lab from a newly-arrived assistant professor, Ignacio Tinoco, Jr. (known to everyone as "Nacho". He recently celebrated his 80th birthday, and I was privileged to be one of the celebrants.) Tinoco asked me, one day, what I planned to do after I graduated. I said I'd probably go to graduate school and study microwave spectroscopy, which was big at Berkeley at the time. Tinoco responded that that was old-fashioned, and that I should study biophysical chemistry instead. I asked him "What's that?", he told me, he supported me for a summer of undergraduate research in his lab, and the rest is history. Tinoco had gotten his Ph.D. at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, and had liked it, so that's where I went for my Ph.D. as well.

What was going on in biochemistry at the time you finished your Ph.D.?

My research at Madison was in the Chemistry Department in the group of Robert Alberty (now at MIT). After doing his early work on electrophoresis of proteins (Wisconsin had a prominent group doing transport studies of biological systems: Alberty on electrophoresis, Louis Gosting on diffusion, and J.W. Williams on ultracentrifugation), Alberty began some fundamental quantitative studies of enzyme kinetics. I took up the theoretical end of this area, and was lucky enough to publish a bunch of papers in JACS and JBC on theoretical kinetics of multi-substrate, multi-product enzymes. We had relatively little contact with the Biochemistry Department and the Enzyme Institute at Madison, and tended to think of them as non-rigorous thinkers, who were trying to solve impossible (we thought) problems like how mitochondria are assembled to carry out energy metabolism.

By the time I finished my PhD, I felt that the elaborate formalism of theoretical enzyme kinetics was boring and sterile, and wanted to do research on more physically meaningful problems. Bruno Zimm had just published some wonderful papers on theories of the helix-coil transitions in polypeptides and DNA, and I was able to get a postdoc with him at UC San Diego. As it happened, he already had some bright students and postdocs working on helix-coil transitions; but Jerry Vinograd at Caltech had just discovered circular DNA, so Zimm suggested that I work instead on the theory of the hydrodynamics of circular polymers. That work formed the basis for my early career as an independent scientist, first at the University of Illinois and then at the University of Minnesota.

What were your primary research goals and achievements?

My initial goal, when I started my faculty career at the University of Illinois in 1964, was to improve the ability of hydrodynamic theory to model the behavior of complex biopolymers such as DNA and bacteriophage. That led in two directions: 1) to use the newly developed technique of dynamic laser light scattering (DLLS) to quickly and accurately measure the diffusion coefficients of biopolymers; and (2) to understand the physical chemistry underlying bacteriophage assembly.

These goals were substantially advanced after I came to Minnesota in 1970. We developed hydrodynamic theory to the point where it is at least as accurate as experiment, and we were among the first to apply that theory and DLLS to complex biopolymer systems, including the kinetics of phage assembly and (in collaboration with Gary Nelsestuen) the conformation of blood clotting factors bound to membrane surfaces. Our interest gradually focused on DNA condensation by multivalent cations, the process at work in DNA packaging within bacteriophage capsids. We (especially postdoc Ioulia Rouzina) were able eventually to develop a new theory of intermolecular forces between charged surfaces (such as DNA) mediated by mobile cations, that seems to explain the phenomenon. To measure the forces holding condensed DNA together, we used single molecule methods (optical tweezers) and highly sensitive isothermal titration calorimetry. Summarizing, I'd say that we used both innovative experimental and theoretical methods to understand important physical properties of DNA and supramolecular assemblies. This work was continuously supported by both NIH and NSF for about 40 years.

What did teaching and training students mean to you?

In classroom teaching, my philosophy has always been that an effective teacher is in command of the subject matter and communicates his enthusiasm for it. I enjoyed teaching in that way, but did not try to make myself a friend or a parent substitute to the students. My approach to mentoring graduate students and postdocs in my lab was similar: try to be an expert and an idea generator about the science, be hands-off but accessible, try to give good career advice, but not be family.

I have also felt that truly effective teaching should not just be local, but should develop resources for better teaching throughout the academic community. Along that line, I feel that my two coauthored books on the physical chemistry of nucleic acids, the book on computer simulation and data analysis in molecular biology and biophysics, and my coauthored book on careers in science have made significant contributions to the teaching of graduate students and postdocs, nationally and internationally.

How did you become interested in governance and administration?

After about 15 years (1964-79) of moderate teaching and a lot of research, I decided that I wanted more personal interactions in my professional life. I had had some enjoyable committee and study section assignments, and realized I could work effectively with professional peers. So when Finn Wold stepped down as Head, I became a candidate for that job. That led to helping to start the Biotechnology Institute, the search advisory committee for a new University of Minnesota President, membership on the FCC, service in the Graduate School and the Office for Public Engagement, and so on. Each new role was an enjoyable challenge, one which fortunately did not detract (until I became Graduate Dean) from my ability to run a successful research program.

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

Having been able to sustain a productive research program, while at the same time playing an active role in faculty governance, university administration, and my professional society. I've felt like a fully contributory citizen of the academic community.

What role (scientist/teacher/administrator) did you most enjoy and why?

There have been several periods in my career that were of considerable challenge and high intensity, which in retrospect were most enjoyable (though I might not have used that word at the time). Four stand out: As a researcher, groping toward an understanding of DNA condensation. As Chair of the Search Advisory Committee to the Regents, in the search that chose President Hasselmo. As a Vice-Chair and Chair of the Faculty Coordinating Committee, contending with the Regents over the fundamental principles of tenure, and then helping to repair relations between faculty, Regents, and administration under President Yudof. And as Editor of Biophysical Journal, leading the transition from a moribund journal to a much livelier and larger one.

How did you get so much done?

First, I had very little interference from family life. I didn't have children, and both of my wives were (and are) high-achieving faculty whose outstanding careers consumed most of their time. My first wife, Clara Bloomfield, is a world-famous oncologist and member of the Institute of Medicine. My current wife, Elsa Shapiro, is Professor of Pediatrics and a prominent researcher on the biological basis of child development. They both set me good examples on how to work hard and effectively.

Second, I have had many talented graduate students and postdocs, who are largely responsible for the research from my lab; and intelligent and capable staff who carried out most of the essential functions when I was Head of the Biochemistry Department, Dean of the Graduate School, and Associate Vice President for Public Engagement. I'm a strong believer in delegating to competent people: they greatly amplify your productivity.

Third, I'm pretty well organized and systematic, and I try to get things done well before deadline. I have a strong drive to completion, so once I'm well into a project, it tends to get done.

What people stand out from your time at the U, whether colleagues or students?

LaVell Henderson and Finn Wold, my predecessors as Head of Biochemistry in CBS, were both outstanding scientists and principled, caring people. The phrase "a scholar and a gentleman" applies perfectly to both. Dave Bernlohr carries on the tradition. Many of the Presidents I've been privileged to work with, especially Ken Keller, Nils Hasselmo, Mark Yudof, and Bob Bruininks, are exceptional people, each in his own way. Christine Maziar, who brought me into the Graduate School, is a remarkably intelligent person and an imaginative, thoughtful administrator.

Even though this piece is about my time at the University of Minnesota, I can't omit mentioning Phil Sharp, who was my student at the University of Illinois. Mentoring a future Nobelist is certainly a stand-out experience!

What’s the most unusual, important or amusing thing that happened to you during your years at the U of M?

I think it was the conflict between the faculty and the administration on the one hand, and the Regents on the other, over basic principles of tenure. It was a compelling and intense struggle, occupying most of a year (1995-96), and it ended with the faculty victorious and a Regent resigning—a very unusual outcome in such struggles, and a most important one for higher education.

How has CBS’ role within the university changed since you arrived in 1970?

Biology has become more prominent in science and human affairs, and CBS has reflected that. There's been a big and successful effort to improve undergraduate biology teaching. The collaborations with the Medical School, especially the joint departments (BMBB and GCBD) have given a more rational structure, and perhaps more resources, to these key research areas. But we never had the resources to really keep up with other universities as modern molecular and cellular biology developed. I worry about the future of CBS: it's always been a small college, vastly understaffed and under-resourced for its mission, and it's likely to get substantially smaller in the next couple of years. Whether it can survive, let alone prosper, under those circumstances is not entirely obvious.

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

The campus has gotten more attractive and better cared for. We are more attentive to students. We still punch above our weight when it comes to academic stature and productivity. But we are still under-resourced to carry out all our missions, and it's getting worse.

What’s your advice to the new president?

Get serious about focus. If we want to be one of the best public research universities in the world, we have to do research and teaching that truly matters to the world. If I were running the UM, I'd focus on four areas that would draw on our strengths, involve all parts of the university, and make a difference in the world: Engineering Biological Systems; Children, Youth, and Family; Public Health and Nutrition; and Non-Western Civilizations.

Also, revise the UM's budget model, which currently stands in the way of inter-college collaborative research and shared teaching in interdisciplinary areas.

What will you miss about the U?

Being an active member of one of society's most important institutions—a public research university—and being challenged by the demands of living up to all my roles in that institution.

What won’t you miss at all?

The bureaucracy that afflicts all large organizations, and the pain of CBS and the UM of never having enough resources to fully carry out our important goals.

What do you want your legacy to be?

To have played a significant role in the unification of the physical and biological sciences, and to have shown how one can be a contributor to all aspects of the university community and the academic enterprise.

If you had followed another career path, what would it be?

Either engineering or publishing. I once thought seriously about becoming a professional photographer, but I think that's better left to a hobby.

What are you going to do with your retirement?

My wife is co-PI on a big NIH grant on rare diseases that runs until 2014, so we'll certainly be around until then. But we enjoy travel, and her 50% appointment allows time to do that. We've been to all seven continents and about 50 countries, but there's still a lot we haven't seen, especially in Latin America and Africa. I still expect to come to the office when not traveling and to do intellectual work: I'm writing a book on "Numerical Methods in Science and Engineering using R", and my wife and I plan to write one on "Biological Consequences of Poverty". We have a house in Albuquerque, New Mexico, where we spend about five days a month. Photography is a serious hobby, both while traveling and at home. My wife's children (two sons) and grandchildren (two boys and a girl) live in Portland, Oregon. We will probably spend more time out there in the coming years. We're particularly interested in whether a cool, rainy winter climate is less annoying than a cold, snowy one.