On hindsight and gratitude

Philip Yeagle in Virginia in 1976
The author in 1976

I experienced an extraordinary privilege in the mid- to late 1970s when I became a postdoc in a vibrant, exciting, even brilliant scientific community that recently had been built at the University of Virginia. I became so immersed in and stimulated by that community that I am embarrassed to say I did not fully realize how special it was until leaving it to pursue my independent research career.
The cluster of immensely talented faculty members, most of whom were in the biochemistry department, was dedicated to understanding the structure and function of biological membranes. The prime mover behind the construction of this community was Tom Thompson, who brought with him a number of scientists from Johns Hopkins University — both established leaders in their fields as well as a number from the ranks of the most promising young scientists. This group was complemented by faculty members in other departments at UVa (including microbiology, pharmacology, physiology and chemistry) who also studied biological membranes. (One became a Nobel laureate.)
To appreciate the importance of this community fully, it helps to know that the field of membrane studies, while having some significant antecedents, nevertheless was very young at that time: Acquisition of hard proof of the lipid bilayer as a fundamental component of membrane architecture was within the scientific memory of all these scientists. As I came to appreciate more fully later, the UVa community was one of two major epicenters of progress in the understanding of membranes, with the other being in Utrecht, Netherlands.
Therefore, it was the place in the U.S. where young scientists could learn to stand on the shoulders of their mentors and prepare to take the field of membrane studies into a new and much more expansive era. This community of scientists was notable for the so-called “smart” experiment; deeply thought-out experimental design gave substance to a clever idea, resulting in the experiment that provided important new information, no matter the result.
While these scientists exemplified the best in the practice of science, they were not particularly aware of the significance of what they had created on the world stage. They were human beings with balanced lives that generally included families and close personal relationships with their students and postdocs. Thus, they not only crafted a powerful center of scientific excellence but at the same time built supportive terrain in which young scientists could take root and grow.

Click here to see more photos from Philip Yeagle of the University of Virginia in the mid-1970s.

Therefore, this is an overdue letter of deepest appreciation to a remarkable community of scientists from one individual and on behalf of what became a new generation of scholars originating in Virginia and spreading out over all the scientific world.

Philip YeaglePhilip Yeagle (pyeagle@
andromeda.rutgers.edu) has been with Rutgers University-Newark since 2007. From 2011 to 2013, he was interim chancellor there and, before that, dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences. He spent a decade as a chairman of the University of Connecticut’s molecular and cell biology department and prior to that was a professor at the University of Buffalo School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences. He has served as executive editor of the journal Biochimica et Biophysica Acta – Biomembranes and as an editorial board member of the Journal of Biological Chemistry.