THE PATH TO SUCCESS IS OFTEN SURPRISING
In 1960 I arrived at UCLA and taught a course in physiological genetics. UCLA’s strong suit then was physiology and I chose that as the closest to my interests. I had one impressive undergraduate student, Ron Sederoff, who asked lots of questions after class and soon he was coming to my laboratory to chat. He was a premedical student and he loved genetics. He got into Stanford Medical school. After a year he decided medicine was not what excited him. He came back to be my graduate student. Ron was unusual because he had trouble growing up. He was a rebellious teenager and what turned him around was going airborne in a hot rod, chased by a state trooper, and landing without injury, just missing the abutment of a freeway. That near-death experience shifted him as a high school student into a more studious mode and that was how he happened to win his reputation back and get into UCLA. Ron chose a problem of mutagenesis and decided to work jointly on fruit flies in my laboratory and bacteriophage viruses with a geneticist I knew at Caltech. He went on to study molecular genetics in Geneva, Switzerland and began his academic career first at Columbia and felt outclassed, and then at Oregon, which also didn’t work out.
Ron then went to North Carolina State University and took up an interest in applying molecular techniques to plants. He studied the DNA in mitochondria and the evolution of these cell organelles that burn oxygen with small molecules and produce the chemical energy that drives metabolism. He spent a year in California with the USDA Forestry Service and realized he could apply his molecular tools to woody plants, like forest trees and soon he was publishing a flurry of articles back at North Carolina State that demonstrated he could use these techniques to genetically modify woody tissue and use this to make maps of the genes and chromosomes in forest trees and identify the genes involved in wood production. He is currently working out by molecular analysis how plants make wood and isolating genes involved in the formation of lignin, xylem, and other woody tissues and structures. He hopes his team studying the biotechnology of forest trees will use genetically modified trees to improve resistance to disease and to improve the quality of wood for use in paper production, construction lumber, and quality woods for furniture.
Ron Sederoff’s success was spectacular and he became not only a pioneer in making a “forest in a test tube” but establishing the world’s largest biotechnology group working on forest trees at North Carolina State University in Raleigh. He was much appreciated by his University and became a Distinguished Professor. He was recognized nationally by election to the National Academy of Sciences, and he has received honorary degrees and other awards around the world.
I have often told my students that I believe in redemption. Some people find this through religion, but I much prefer the redemption that comes from discovering the talents we harbor within us. Often these are masked and we have low esteem especially when we are teenagers. Ron’s success made me aware early in my career that encouraging students is as important as conveying information to them.