Reflecting on 35 years: What’s most important

If you’ve been following CURchem this April, you’ve been enjoying the parting words of wisdom from our friend and colleague, Dr. Roger Rowlett. This week Roger talks about what it takes to make a rewarding career over decades, and the most important lesson he has learned. And who new that Roger arrived at Colgate driving a green ’68 Mustang Fastback?

Rule #6: Research should be fun

 “When you have confidence, you can have a lot of fun. And when you have fun, you can do amazing things.”—Joe Namath

 Several of my mentors have told me that in research, “if you are not having fun, you are not doing it right.” My mentors did not lie. A common thread in undergraduate research is that it is always fun. OK, maybe some of those dark days when nothing seems to work and nothing is currently making sense, it didn’t seem like so much fun at the time, but in retrospect, ultimately solving those challenges was immensely rewarding—and fun. It is important to counsel undergraduate students that in research is an adventure where “failure is expected; misery is optional.”

Rule #7: Be a lifelong learner

“Anyone who stops learning is old, whether at twenty or eighty. Anyone who keeps learning stays young.”― Henry Ford

I attended a National Science Foundation session at one of many CUR meetings where the program officer informed everyone there that “the half-life of the knowledge acquired in your Ph.D. training and education is about 5 years.” My subsequent experience proved that postulate close to the mark. In my field, biochemistry, paradigm shifts seem as commonplace as Coca-Cola.

You must keep up or get left behind: there is no middle ground.

In the 1990s, it was the ascendency of molecular biology technology that changed the way we asked and answered questions about molecular function of proteins; in the 2000s it was the emergence of protein X-ray crystallography as a widely accessible technique to understand protein structure. Now it’s Crispr-Cas9 that allows exquisitely specific genome editing. Who knows what will be next? You must keep up or get left behind: there is no middle ground.

Although starting out in enzyme kinetics, Roger made use of two key sabbaticals at NIH to re-energize his pursuit of biochemical problems:  in 1996 he added site-directed mutagenesis to his toolbox, then in 2002 he developed the skills of a protein crystallographer to further support his scholarship.

Ernie Nolen, Gordon and Dorothy Kline Chair in Chemistry,  Colgate University

lifelong-learnerIn 1995, I arranged to spend an academic year at the National Institutes of Health learning the latest techniques in molecular biology and protein engineering under the tutelage of Edith Wilson Miles and her outstanding laboratory staff. One of the wonderful coincidences of this association is that I got to conduct research on tryptophan synthase, the protein that started my undergraduate research career some 20 years previous! (Needless to say, the literature on the subject had advanced quite a bit since my undergraduate days.) I brought the knowledge acquired during that professional leave back to Colgate and used it to establish a well-equipped protein engineering laboratory. What I learned at the NIH was not in any textbook, manual or published paper, but rather lived in the internal practices and oral traditions of the NIH laboratories. We still use many of these techniques in my research lab today, and my students take these techniques with them to their graduate programs. This experience led me to document our procedures and protocols, first in a printed manual I gave to each of my research students, and later in a wiki page (

ch2_xrayIn 2002, I arranged to spend another academic year at the NIH learning protein X-ray crystallography, this time in the lab of David Davies, a luminary in the field. His postdocs, especially Jessica Bell (now an Assistant Professor at the University of San Diego) were patient and highly effective mentors. A few years prior, the idea of learning protein crystallography in a few months would have been considered a fool’s errand, but by 2000 or so, protein crystallography was becoming increasingly accessible to those who were not shamans in the field. The Linux revolution about this time made the computing platforms required for this work more affordable and powerful by an order of magnitude. By the end of my NIH appointment in 2003, new technologies in X-ray sources began to make the equipment itself more affordable than ever, eventually leading to my successful acquisition of a protein X-ray diffractometer at Colgate in 2008.

Professional development and life-long learning is just another aspect of professional career planning and goal setting.

Rule #8: “Your success is my success”

 “The rising tide lifts all the boats.”—John F. Kennedy

lab-workFinally, I’d like to share perhaps the most important lesson I have learned in a 35-year career in academia. It is that “your success is my success,” a mantra that was frequently communicated to me by many mentors in my early years. Today there are too many individuals, including prominent leaders, that view every action through a transactional lens, where someone wins and someone loses. Yet, this is hardly ever the case in collaborative endeavors like science and education.

Jealousy is toxic. Success is viral.

10_57The successes of your colleagues—research grants awarded, public recognition of excellence given, appointment or election to leadership positions, etc.—reflect positively on all associated with them. The shadow of accomplishment casts not a pall, but highlights all those around it. Likewise, one’s own accomplishments serve to help, not hinder others. Jealousy is toxic. Success is viral. Over the years I have taken as much or more pleasure from the successes of my colleagues and students as I have for my own moments.

Katherine Hicks – Undergraduate researcher; REU student:

I met Roger Rowlett when I worked in his lab as part of an REU summer program. At the time, Roger had recently returned from a sabbatical at the NIH and was implementing what were then new molecular biology techniques, like cloning and bacterial overexpression, into his laboratory. I had not yet taken a biochemistry course, so this was my first exposure to the field that would eventually become my career. What I remember most about working in Roger’s lab that summer was his enthusiasm about our research project and how much I learned working for him. Roger also set a high standard for an end of the summer gathering as he took his research group for a ride in his plane over the Hamilton area, which for some of the students was their first time flying. As I continued in the field and decided that I also wanted to be a professor at a primarily undergraduate institution, Roger was someone that I turned to for advice. He was always very generous with his time and expertise. Last year, things came full circle when Roger invited me to present a seminar at Colgate and I invited Roger to present a seminar at SUNY Cortland, where I now am an assistant professor. It was a wonderful experience to have my students meet one of my mentors and hear stories about me as an undergraduate student. I know that Roger has had a lasting impact on numerous students, and I am so grateful to be one of them. 

Katherine Hicks, PhD, Assistant Professor, SUNY Cortland Chemistry


A Student Reflects…

Shaun Murphree – Undergraduate researcher :

I think I have the distinction of being Roger’s first undergraduate summer research student.   In the Spring of 1983, I was a junior in a study-abroad program and I had applied for a Colgate summer research internship.  After the good news of my acceptance came the task of choosing a research advisor.  I didn’t know anything about the new faculty member at the time, but who could pass up an opportunity to conduct a cryoenzymological study of adenosine deaminase?  It was my first actual research experience, and the lessons I learned in the Rowlett lab (and from the man himself) have served me to this day.

1968_00089_02Roger was a sort of immediate celebrity.  An Alabaman with a penchant for dishes cooked with Old Bay seasoning, Rog (as the Chem majors affectionately called him) burst on the scene driving a badass green ’68 Mustang Fastback.  Youthful, trim, affable, and slightly nerdy, he brought to the department expertise not only in biochemistry, but also in computer science.  For the project I worked on, he had an elaborate custom-built jacketed quartz cuvette that allowed us to follow enzyme kinetics by UV-Vis at low temperatures.  The spectrometer was connected to a Tandy computer for logging the absorbance and fitting the curves, and we fed those data into the college mainframe for backing out the global kinetic parameters.  That might not seem impressive for today’s audience, but in the year before the first Macintosh was introduced, Roger’s setup was cutting-edge.

Roger provided a sterling model for what a research mentor should be.  He applied a regimented approach to the lab, and he brought a lot of sheer intellectual firepower to the table.  Moreover, he had an uncanny capacity to keep numbers in his head—looking over newly acquired data, he would routinely dredge up from memory rate constants (to three sig figs) of kinetic runs I had done days before.  But he was also patient with us mere mortals.  There was the time I snapped a hose barb off the custom-built quartz cuvette, and when I—with fear and trembling—confessed the deed, his reproof was simply (and with much self-control), “I don’t see any reason that hose needed to be taken off.”  Lesson learned, and we moved on.  Later in the summer, as we were chatting about directions the project could take for my senior year, Roger said of one set of experiments, “I think I’ll save that for somebody who’s not so handy in the lab.”  Those words of encouragement, unvarnished and measured, were transformative.  ~Shaun Murphree, Professor of Chemistry, Allegheny College

7cof1bd8Dr. Roger Rowlett recently retired from the faculty at Colgate University where he served for 35 years in the Department of Chemistry, many of those years as the GORDON & DOROTHY KLINE PROFESSOR OF CHEMISTRY and Chair. Roger was a founding member, a long-time Chemistry councilor and served as President of the Council for Undergraduate Research.

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