Just like Boyd

Gary Weisman is inspired by his 100-year-old mentor, Boyd O’Dell

Published March 01 2017

O’Dell raises a glass of wine at an event honoring his 100th birthday. PHOTO COURTESY OF JUSTIN KELLY

In 1985, Gary Weisman had several assistant professorship offers in molecular biology after finishing his postdoctoral fellowship at Cornell University. He had the enviable problem of having trouble deciding which offer to choose.

“They said ‘Don’t dismiss Missouri,’” says Weisman, recalling the advice from his Cornell colleagues. “They knew Boyd O’Dell personally and how big he was in the field.”

As the head of the department’s hiring committee for a new cell-culture laboratory at the time, O’Dell, a professor of biochemistry at the University of Missouri, was fascinated by Weisman’s work with cell-culture models, which would allow the institution’s researchers to speed up the work that initially was being run with animal-based models.

Weisman ended up heading west to help transition the work of faculty in food science and nutrition at the university into the realm of cell biology.

A pioneer in nutrition research

O’Dell, who turned 100 in October, has spent most of his career, which dates back 80-odd years to his time as an undergraduate student beginning in 1937, at MU. He worked primarily on animal-based nutrition research related to trace mineral deficiencies, namely of zinc and copper.

He would go on to become one of the first scientists to discover the important role that folic acid and vitamin B12 play in the development of human and animal embryos, leading to the now-well-recognized relationship between deficiencies in folate and B12 and birth defects in humans. O’Dell, with the help of his research team, also discovered in the late 1950s how phytic acid interferes with the absorption and utilization of zinc.

“That observation has caught worldwide attention, and they’re still researching it in humans,” says O’Dell.

Weisman, who became a professor of biochemistry at MU in 1998, was accompanied to MU by his top lab assistant at Cornell, Kevin Lustig, who now is the CEO of Scientist.com. 

Lustig, along with then-graduate student Laurie Erb (now an associate professor of biochemistry at MU), cloned the first human gene for a P2 nucleotide receptor. For years, others in the biochemistry field had doubts about Weisman’s research, but not O’Dell. “No one thought the receptor was real,” says Weisman. “Kevin and Laurie kept me on the straight and narrow, and Boyd was here all of the time mentoring me, and I worked through the problem and basically convinced everybody that it was real.”

Weisman, who lives about three blocks from O’Dell, also has adopted one of O’Dell’s habits. For the first 10 years of his time in Columbia, while driving to work every day, Weisman would always see O’Dell walking to his lab. Inspired, Weisman started walking to campus in the 1990s.

“I just saw how fit he was. He was much older than me, but still he was working pretty hard and walking all of the time,” Weisman says of O’Dell, who still makes his way to his laboratory on foot when the weather is good. “So I changed my lifestyle and took nutrition more seriously and started walking.

“To this day, I have not used my car at all. I walk everywhere around town. Basically, I’m always on my feet following in Boyd’s footsteps. I don’t mean that in a general way. I mean that absolutely literally.”

Boyd O’Dell (left) and Gary Weisman PHOTO COURTESY OF STEPHEN SCHMIDT

Forming a partnership

Weisman’s lab is in the same building where O’Dell does his research. In 2014, O’Dell received word that Weisman had a fluorometer in his lab that would be perfect for his work on how zinc deficiency harms cell function by blocking the signal for calcium uptake. O’Dell was put in contact with Weisman’s head technician, Jean Camden.

“We’ve been working together ever since,” says Camden, who, like O’Dell, is now semiretired. In the fall of 2014, the two began the measurement of calcium uptake with blood platelets before it was determined that the platelets had too short of a shelf life. The following spring, Camden suggested they work with human T lymphocyte cells, called Jurkat cells, which can be produced easily millions at a time.

O’Dell has been using the Jurkat cells to measure zinc released by a mild oxidizing agent.

He adds the zinc back and releases it again. Based on the results obtained, Camden has used similar conditions to measure calcium uptake with the fluorometer. O’Dell and Camden hope to publish their results soon.

“His hearing is the only problem, so you talk loud,” Weisman says of O’Dell. “But he’s still thinking just as fast as we are — faster probably.”

‘Don’t worry about your age’

Weisman, at age 65, has no intention of slowing down and becoming inactive, although at the moment he cannot wrap his mind around approaching 100.

“Don’t worry about your age. Worry about how you feel today. Think about what you’re going to do tomorrow, and I think you’ll stay in the game longer than you think,” Weisman says of his mantra. “Life goes fast, but I just don’t see myself as a 65-year-old. I see myself as a teenager. And I think Boyd must be that way. He must not see himself as 100-years-old.”

When people ask him about retirement advice, O’Dell provides two words: “Keep working.”

“Try to pick something that you’re passionate about and do it,” O’Dell says. “If you like to research, as I do, that’s OK. If you think that you want to spend your time making fishing lures, that’s OK too. But you have to be passionate enough to really want to get up and go.”

Stephen Schmidt Stephen Schmidt is a science writer at the University of Missouri’s College of Agriculture, Food and Natural Resources.