My earliest memory of becoming intrigued with science revolves around a geology textbook that one of my parents had used during college. It helped that I also grew up in Wyoming, where there are numerous examples of geological and paleontological phenomena.
As a young person my interests were influenced by my grandfather (mother’s side) in St. Louis, Missouri. He was very much a blue collar man, working for the balance of his life as a heavy equipment operator, using machines ranging from bulldozers to cranes, on a variety of construction projects throughout the St. Louis area. He would take me to see these different roads and buildings, and, with a pretty reserved sense of pride, tell me stories about what he remembered from each project. At the beginning of my undergraduate studies, there was no surprise that I was initially interested in pursuing civil engineering as a major. Although I eventually changed my major away from engineering, the mechanical inclinations fostered by these early interactions with my grandfather certainly continue to influence me to this day. Instead of steel rails, I work on engineering two reverse complement strands of DNA, and rather than a wrench or a hammer, I use small “scissors” and “welders” not visible by eye to complete my projects. In some manner, I carry the construction pedigree of my grandfather into the future.
Equally as influential in my life are the experiences I have had with Nathalie, my wife of 25 years, traveling to her home in Bas-Rhin, the Northern part of Alsace in France. It is there, whilst looking out over the vineyards in the Rhine river valley, that I first became intrigued with plant-pathogen interactions. I learned that a majority of grapevines in the world are grafted, with the high value, high quality fruit bearing canes being physically separated (necessarily so!) from the soil by a phylloxera resistant rootstalk. Thinking about this agronomic practice, which essentially saved the French wine industry from total ruin, was the first moment in my life when I began to think about biotechnological improvement of plants.
Turning the dream of working with plants into a reality involved some unexpected turns along the way. My first science job after obtaining my B.S. in Molecular Biology was to conduct sliding plate microviscometry studies with asphalt at the Western Research Institute on the campus of the University of Wyoming. Asphalt just so happens to be the heavy residue remaining after vacuum distillation of crude oil. In the 1970’s oil refiners figured out how to render asphalt into usable products, which resulted in a shortage of asphalt as an inexpensive road building material. A number of road projects that were completed with inferior grade asphalt (each crude oil source produces an asphalt that can be remarkably different from other crude sources) resulted in roads that alligator cracked after a couple of heavy rain events. The need to qualitatively test asphalt batches became a priority for cash strapped Departments of Transportation. My very small role was to make small “sandwiches” of asphalt between glass or limestone “plates” (image taken fromJuly 2012). A hanging weight was used to apply a force to one of the plates, and the shear rate could be determined. The difference in the rate of shear when the asphalt was interacting with glass (a smooth surface) versus limestone (milled smooth by a lapidary, but clearly not smooth when examined with a scanning electron microscope) revealed a remarkable interaction between the asphalt and the aggregate. I was amazed to observe that each crude oil source behaved differently in this test. It was during this time that I first began to realize the amazing chemical complexity that one can find in the plant world.
After working at WRI for a year, I moved on to work in a BSL-3 containment lab for the USDA, still in Laramie, Wyoming. I worked on projects investigating vector-virus-host interactions between Bluetongue Virus and Vesicular Stomatitis Virus and the small dipteran Culicoides variipennis. I had to propagate the virus in a variety of mammalian cell cultures, then use the virus to intrathoracically inoculate female flies (anesthetized with CO2, and temporarily kept asleep with a cold table). These virus infected flies were then utilized in experiments on horses, cows and sheep. I learned to be very mindful of my work, and it was here where I first developed my attention to detail. Nothing sharpens the mind like working with things that can kill you.
During the summer of 1999, West Nile Virus spread throughout the Eastern United States. The writing was on the wall that we, along with Plum Island in New York, might expect to be assigned to begin working on West Nile Virus. As luck would have it, I had just enough credits to complete my second Bachelor of Science, in Botany. At that time, we at the USDA in Laramie had the good fortune to receive a free class each semester from the University of Wyoming, and I had taken advantage of this to pursue my dream of working with plants by working towards my Botany degree. I have always felt that Molecular Biology provided me a job, whilst Botany gave me a life. I was very fortunate to be able to transfer from the Arthropod Born Animal Diseases Research lab in Laramie to begin working at the Crops Pathology and Genetics Research Unit on the campus of the University of California at Davis. Finally my career working with plants could begin.