At the annual SBS Award Ceremony this past spring, three retiring faculty members, now emeritus status in the School, were recognized by their colleagues.
Festschriften: a book honoring a respected person, especially an academic, presented during their lifetime and containing contributions from the honoree's colleagues, former pupils, and friends.
On a clear night deep in the Wasatch the sky is painted by starlight – you can see about 5000 stars! But that is only a tiniest fraction of their total number. There are 100 billion stars in our Milky Way Galaxy, that is 20 million times more stars than the ones you can see. That unfathomable number is how many nerve cells are in your brain; your mind is as big and complex as the stars in Milky Way Galaxy. Moreover, those neurons form connections, and are signaling to each other. But the connections and networks must be correct for each of us to be the talented human beings that we are.
Mike Bastiani spent his career studying how the brain forms these connections in a reliable and correct manner among the number of those signaling neurons. The scale we are talking about here is worth mentioning. Nerve cells are only 30 micrometers in diameter but must send a thin process called an axon up to one meter away to form the correct connection to its target cell. Let's pretend that you're a nerve cell. That would be equivalent to your hand crawling on the ground for 85 miles – all the way from Salt Lake City to the Idaho state line.(That would be a pretty remarkable journey for a human hand).
Mike first studied this process in grasshoppers, demonstrating that each of what he identified as sprouting growth cones on the end of the nerve’s axon follows a specific path, making contacts with particular cells along the way. His laboratory identified unique proteins on the surface of these tracts of axons that acted as guides for growth cones that followed along the established roadways, changing direction of migration – as if reading a map.
With his labeled-pathways hypothesis in hand, Mike began to study growth cone behavior in intact (not dissected) transparent nematode worms. His lab was the first to characterize growth cones in an unperturbed environment and unexpected behaviors of growth cones, their collapse – a once discarded notion — and their re-creation of the growth cone on the other side once they’ve successfully navigated a barrier.
Using this assay, his laboratory then discovered an entirely new process in nervous system development. By continuing to observe the nervous system after wiring was complete, he and his team identified genes that stabilized it. These genes “told” neurons to set aside their youth, to stop sprouting growth cones, and to stabilize the existing network.
Initially, Mike observed in yet another subject model, C. elegans, what most believed: that damaged axons could not regrow and shut down. But then seven hours following the damage done to axons by a laser, he saw that growth cones sprouted from the stump and regrew to their target, though admittedly not perfectly. He then screened for mutants that could not regrow axons and discovered a protein called DLK-1 that was required for the reappearance of a new growth cone. Importantly, if he caused the neuron to make DLK-1 before the axon was damaged, the growth cone sprouted immediately after being cut and was able to find its correct target.
Subsequently, these experiments have been validated in mammals. It turns out, the nervous system can heal itself, and if the neurons can be prodded to respond to damage earlier, can regrow, and re-establish functional synaptic contacts. These experiments have led the neuroscience community to explore repair of damaged nervous systems such as spinal cord injuries that result in patient paralysis.
Mike Bastiani retired from the School of Biological Sciences this past May, but as of 11 am this morning can still be seen at his microscope room repairing the laser. Apparently, there’s more work to be done. ~ Erik Jorgensen
Don Feener has retired from the School of Biology, joining the ranks of the emeriti. His lively wit and penetrating questions have been an integral part of the intellectual and social life of our School since 1989. I first met Don when we were both at the University of Texas at Austin in the late 1970s. I was just starting my PhD program and Don had just finished his PhD on the community ecology of ants. Don was famous as one of the most well read of all the students, exhibiting a remarkable breadth of ecological knowledge and being up to date on all the latest publications. He inspired me as I pursued my own career in insect ecology. Also, that lively wit was on full display, making for awesome parties at Don's. In 1981, Don published a ground-breaking paper in Science, showing how parasitic flies affect ant behavior, mediating and altering competitive interactions among ant species. This simple and elegant field experiment had a large impact on thinking in community ecology. To this day I use that paper in my teaching, as an example where the discovery did not rely on new or sophisticated technology, but simply asking the right question. Great science can be done with a pencil, a notebook, a stopwatch, and a prepared mind. Don went on to establish a prominent career as a community ecologist, using ants and their parasitoid flies as a model system for understanding how ecological communities are structured and function.
Beyond focused research, Don has always been a conscientious contributor to the teaching and administrative components of our academic enterprise. Don is a dedicated and empathetic teacher and has shepherded countless students through a broad range of topics: general biology, ecology, evolution, tropical biology, entomology, and quantitative methods. He has advised and launched sixteen graduate students and served on innumerable graduate committees. Always a good citizen, Don was a regular and reliable member of administrative committees, doing the necessary but generally thankless work.
But Don is more than his professional life. He has always been a consummate "curious naturalist," observing and pondering nature in all its beauty and complexity. He has also been a consummate human being, deeply caring for others and alert to their needs. I have been a colleague of Don's for 40 decades, a great experience. I have also been a friend, an equally important honor. In his new role, we lose his teaching and administrative service, but luckily we still get the scientist, the curious naturalist, and the friend.
~ Jack Longino
As a scientist, Jon brings rigorous scholarship, creativity, and a "no barriers" approach. He defined bet-hedging in classic work, worked with Hamilton on parasites and sex, and was inspired by his wife Vicky Rowntree's right whale system to appreciate the power of being boring. Whale lice, that we hoped would tell us something about whale movement, turned out to tell us absolutely nothing. Jon had the vision to appreciate how their dull environment and mind-numbing population dynamics provide the perfect system to measure the chilly draft of deleterious alleles that makes each of us rather less than perfect.
Unlike some theorists I can think of, Jon knows how to run a lab, and can be found sequencing whale lice at odd hours of the day and night to extract the interesting from the boring.
We've had fun running Theory Lunch since I arrived, making up witty posters, maybe helping a few people, and learning a lot along the way. As I see it, I come up with the "right way" to address the question, and Jon presents an alternative. He finds the holes in the logic, and by creating even bigger holes, finds the deeper questions lurking beneath a seemingly simple facade.
Soon after my arrival, we were discussing some problem, and I made an off-hand comment about "pointy-headed molecular biologists." Jon swiftly set me straight, that biology is biology and that head shape is uncorrelated with subdiscipline. That short conversation was part of the long conversation that set me on the path of my own increasingly pointy-headed research and perhaps even to the role I find myself in today. For everything but that, Jon, thanks. I hope and trust that your retirement is the opportunity for us to keep our conversation going. It's in our genes after all… . ~ Fred Adler