Julia Bailey-Serres, BS’81

Julia Bailey-Serres, BS'81

SBS Distinguished Alumna 2020

 

 

Julia Bailey-Serres, BS’81, is known for her research on mechanisms of plant adaptive responses to environmental stresses. She remembers enrolling in “a lot of lab classes in genetics, animal physiology and chemistry” at the U. And she fondly recalls a team-taught lab with now Nobel laureate Mario Capecchi. Other teachers and mentors she is quick to mention are Ray Gesteland, Joe Dickinson and E. Tucker Gurney, all emeritus faculty now.

A California native, Bailey-Serres transferred as a sophomore to the U where she immediately got a job in a lab with the late George Edmunds, an aquatic entomologist. “It was an early opportunity to understand what research was,” she says. “It gave me a home and then paid for a summer school class in electron microscopy on insects.”

After graduation, she attended he University of Edinburgh where she earned her PhD studying rearrangements of mitochondrial DNA in sorghum, a genus of flowering plants in the grass family Poaceae. Now Director at the Center for Plant Cell Biology and Distinguished Professor of Genetics at the University of California, Riverside, she was elected to the National Academy of Sciences in 2016 and, in 2020, recognized as a Distinguished Alumna of the School of Biological Sciences.

In addition to Edmunds, while at the U Bailey-Serres was mentored by SBS’s David Wolstenholme who would “steal” her away from his colleague. Cell and molecular biology outside of bacteria and viruses were just beginning to emerge, and Wolstenholme, who would become Department Chair, “didn’t guide me as much as just provided opportunities. [It was a] tremendous undergraduate opportunity,” she says, doing electron microscopy as well as some molecular biology. The research experience was accented by her work during her junior year as a teaching assistant for the non-majors biology class. “I was self-supporting as a student and needed the money for tuition.” Getting paid for lab work, she wryly attests, was “a lot more interesting than washing dishes.”

Even so, she remembers, “I was just this naïve young person interested in science and David gave me the push I needed.” She remembers Wolstenholme's explaining that she really needed to go to graduate school. As a consequence of her research experience at the U, Bailey-Serres has always had an undergraduate researcher in her own lab, over 100 to date. Fittingly, her first faculty award at Riverside was for her work with budding undergraduate researchers. The kind of relationship she formed with Wolstenholme was arguably prologue to what would become what is now the recently launched Science Research Initiative for undergraduates in the U’s College of Science.

Grains in the Rain

The Bailey-Serres group develops basic plant research discoveries into technologies or approaches that improve agriculture. By pursuing translational plant biology, says Bailey-Serres, “we aim to harness genetic mechanisms that provide climate change resilience to crops, particularly flooding, drought and nutrient stress resilience.” Her lab works from the single cell to the whole plant level. Their studies have defined mechanisms of low oxygen sensing and post-transcriptional gene regulation, from the epigenome to the "mRNPome" and translatome. “This knowledge is of importance to efforts that seek to stabilize crop yields,” she explains. “As Earth’s population grows, arable land decreases, and climatic patterns change.”

In a 2019 paper published in Science she disclosed how other crops compare to rice when submerged in water. Her research found that the plants – a wild-growing tomato, a tomato used for farming and a plant similar to alfalfa – all share at least 68 families of genes in common that are activated in response to flooding. “We hope to take advantage of what we learned about rice in order to help activate the genes in other plants that could help them survive waterlogging,” the paper reported.

Bailey-Serres has been involved in improving climate resilience in crops since her post doctoral fellowship at Berkeley where she first connected hypoxia responses with changes in translation. Traditional plant breeding demonstrated the presence of a gene that could confer submergence resistance (the SUB1 locus), but early breeding of the submergence locus into popular rice cultivars was mostly unsuccessful because it led to strains that had lost other desirable traits.

To get around this, Bailey-Serres was a member of a team that characterized the SUB1 locus molecularly. In her nomination of Bailey-Serres for the Distinguished Alumni Award, SBS’s Leslie Sieburth wrote that the 30-year research veteran’s “studies have led to much broader understanding of plant responses to hypoxia, and allowed marker-assisted breeding which introduced this gene to popular rice varieties.” By 2014, the rice cultivars that carried SUB1A were distributed to more than 4 million farmers throughout Asia. Sieburth applauded Bailey’s “extended … studies to understanding the gene regulatory networks underlying hypoxic responses, [including] the evolution of these responses in monocots and eudicots.”

The Climate Challenge

 While finding survival strategies for rice and other crops has always been critical, with climate change the challenge has become even greater. Currently, Bailey-Serres is embedded in a research group with other full professors in the Netherlands while she directs the National Research Traineeship program for graduate studies bridging plant biology and engineering. She also continues to collaborate with Sieburth, also a plant biologist, while continually being informed by others working in the field like Distinguished Professor and former SBS Chair Jim Ehleringer who is looking at how climate change effects where plants grow.

In addition to her research, Bailey-Serres is dedicated to promoting science education and professional development as well as fostering diversity and innovation in collaborative and interdisciplinary research. An example of this outreach is high school senior Susan Su who in 2018 took her project developed in the Bailey-Serres lab to the International Science and Engineering Fair where she placed third in her category (Plant Sciences). Su is now a student at MIT.

The technical advances taking place in plant translational research exemplify how basic research discoveries spawned at the School of Biological Sciences and elsewhere are being translated into methods to develop and improve important crop traits. Dr. Julia Bailey-Serres and her research group are at the forefront of making sure that happens.

 
by David Pace
 

George Elliott, PhD’81

"Always be open to unforeseen possibilities and opportunities; never be afraid to fail, and learn from your failures," says George Elliott (PhD'81). "Don’t get bogged down in a very narrow line of pursuit—the broader your knowledge is the more creative and successful a problem-solver you will be." That's great advice to U Biology students today. And it seems to have been the advice Elliott himself followed back in the day when he was at the U, following his sojourn at University of California, San Diego where he earned his bachelor's.

“My graduate career began in 1973,” says Elliott who with his wife Lissa resides in Virginia. “I was one of only two students accepted into the molecular/cellular/genetics part of the Biology Department that had been newly constructed by K. Gordon Lark. Gordon had hired a dozen or more new professors, mostly young and engaged in a potpourri of cutting edge, exciting research.”

Elliott retired from the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) in 2016 following an auspicious career as, first, a patent examiner, manager and Group Director of the Tech Center responsible for biotechnology and pharmaceutical patent examination, and finally as Deputy Chief Policy Officer for Operations in the Office of Policy and International Affairs.

Stationed in Virginia, Elliott coordinated operations of approximately 45 attorneys and 55 admin and program staff responsible for advising U.S. Government on Intellectual Property matters and representing the U.S. government in IP-related international organizations and negotiations around the world. The Office of the Administrator for Policy and International Affairs at USPTO assists the Under Secretary of Commerce for Intellectual Property and Director of the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office in advising the President, through the Secretary of Commerce, and Federal agencies on domestic and international IP issues as well as on United States treaty obligations.

Elliott’s experience at the University of Utah was formative across the board. While at the U, he chose to work with Marty Rechsteiner, now Distinguished Professor Emeritus in Biochemistry, who was continually coming up with new ways to look at intracellular small and large molecule metabolism. “The lessons I learned working with Marty and in my interactions with [SBS faculty] Toto Olivera, Mario Capecchi, Dana Carroll, Bill Gray and others, stayed with me for the rest of my career, whether in research or at the Patent and Trademark Office.”

With respect to COVID-19, Elliott is reassuring to students who are faced with what seems an unprecedented time during their academic careers. "It will pass, eventually, but everybody should take it seriously," he remarks. "The idea that younger people are somehow in less danger is being proven less and less true all the time. And nobody should think it is only about protecting themselves—it’s all about creating situations where the virus is spread. But students should know that—they just need to act on their knowledge."

George Elliott is more than grateful for his own experience at the U. He is also one of several alumni who have established a mechanism of estate giving to benefit the School of Biological Sciences. When asked why he has made a gift of this kind, he says, “The education I received while getting my PhD from U Biology was instrumental in providing us with a very enjoyable life together, and we feel it is very important to ensure that the programs that we benefited from can continue to the benefit of those who follow.”

by David Pace

About Planned Giving:

Some planned gifts may yield certain federal tax advantages and can even give you an income throughout your lifetime. The College of Science’s Crimson Legacy Society is designed to recognize those who have made a deep commitment to the future of the School of Biological Sciences through cash or planned gifts at the $50,000 level or above.

Members will be recognized on the Crimson Legacy donor wall and in the College's annual Discover publication. They will also receive special tokens of appreciation in recognition of their support.

Jeffrey Webster, BS’81

 

Jeffrey Webster (BS'81)

A native of Chagrin Falls, OH, Jeff Webster, MD, FAAOS, found himself as an undergraduate at the University of Utah for "not the most mature reason, but it's true": the easy access to the world class skiing. He might be surprised at how common the denominator is for arriving freshmen who are held in rapture by the opportunities for outdoor recreation in the nearby Wasatch Mountains.

Whether skiing was an adjunct to the degree he sought in biology as a pre-med student ... or the reverse, will remain obscured for now. What he did find in Salt Lake City in the late 70s was that the U was his crucible for a successful life. "The U made me realize that school and life aren't easy, that you have to do solid, honest work to forge your path."

That path culminated in his career as an orthopedic surgeon, currently at the Reno Orthopedic Clinic. After graduating from the U, he attended Wayne State University for his MD followed by a residency at Indiana University. A sports medicine fellowship at Methodist Hospital in Indianapolis then propelled him back to the west near another ski town, this time at the foot of the Sierra Nevada.

While in Utah the slopes had to compete with another passion of Webster's: his two years on the swim team between 1979 and the year he graduated in 1981. "Under coach Don Reddish I made lifelong friends, learned many life lessons, and met my wife Bridget Duncan Webster of over 36 years now." In the off-season he found himself at the bench doing research. I "did a student project," he explains, "self designed, regarding anabolic steroids in rats. Doc [James] Lords supervised. [It] was never published or presented, but was fun to do. The rats surely would have disagreed with the 'fun to do' part." Typical of the School of Biological Sciences' reputation for the informality with which world-class faculty and students collaboratively interact, Webster remembers sitting more than once in Lords' office where they would "shoot the breeze, talk biology, sports, whatever."

As for today, the clinic where Webster works has been, for over sixty years, a magnet for some of the best and brightest in orthopedic medicine. As one of 30 physicians, the Northern Nevada clinic boasts "the kind of comprehensive, world-class care typically only seen in major metropolitan areas." And, along with all medical practitioners right now, Webster, a Fellow of the American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons, acknowledges the current challenges in the field because of the Covid-19 pandemic. "The impact has been tremendous, and not all in a good way," he says. "The daily inconveniences are certainly a nuisance, but tolerable. It’s the political malfeasance that’s concerning to me." Even so, he muses, the "virus situation has brought family and friends closer, allowing us to appreciate the most important things in life."

His advice to undergraduates currently navigating their education while wearing masks, social distancing and living with the uncertainty of what's next during this singular time is philosophical:  "Be humble, choose your goals, and work diligently in accomplishing them. The basic tenets of western civilization, Christianity for example, are extremely important and powerful. Lead a virtuous life. ...While not very religious per se, I’ve become more spiritual with time."

Dr. Webster quips that he still loves to ski, though he isn't ready to say if Tahoe is as good as "the greatest snow on earth" of Alta and Snowbird. Fortunately, for both this Ohio native and the School of Biological Sciences, they still share the same Great Basin, across the west desert and the salt flats, connected still by the legacy of the University of Utah.

 

 
by David Pace