With the passing of Adolphus P. Toliver, the scientific community has lost a friend, a great mentor, a change agent and a leading proponent of the minority programs at the National Institutes of Health.
Toliver, the Minority Access to Research Careers Branch chief from 1994 to 2012 at the National Institute of General Medical Sciences, died March 26.
Previously, Toliver had served as the executive secretary (scientific review administrator) of the biochemistry study section of the NIH Division of Research Grants (now called the Center for Scientific Review). Prior to joining the NIH, Toliver was a member of the faculty at University of California, Davis.
He earned a bachelor’s degree in biology from Washington University in St. Louis and master’s and doctoral degrees in molecular biology/biochemistry from Purdue University in Indiana. His postdoctoral studies at Kansas State University were supported by an American Cancer Society fellowship.
A special gift for mentoring
Known to friends and colleagues as “Tol,” he was born and raised in Saint Louis in the era of segregation. He was a smart student and a self-learner, but at an early age he never thought he would become a scientist. A mentor he had when he worked in a clinical laboratory was the one who recognized his talent and encouraged him to study. This mentorship by a person “who did not look like me,” Tol said, inspired him profoundly and left a lasting influence on his ideas and views on mentoring.
Throughout the many phases of Tol’s scientific career, he had a special gift for identifying and developing talent. Many scientists owe part of their successes to him, a demonstration of one of his most outstanding qualities: being a great mentor. His mentoring moments, as many can attest, occurred during formal and informal meetings while he was conversing with students, administrators and scientists. It often is said that a great mentor is someone who takes an unselfish interest in an individual and helps him or her grow.
Tol’s numerous mentees, such as Dwight Lewis, Shiva Singh, Shawn Drew Gaillard, Alberto Rivera-Rentas and Kamilah Ali, recall that he was generous with his advice and feedback but also persistent until he saw the results he expected. His friendly and relaxed personality allowed him to engage people and communicate in a frank yet helpful way. He was fair and trustworthy, and he was an astute communicator. But more importantly, he was always available to all those he considered his friends and mentees.
An accomplished career
Beyond his mentoring, Tol was a change agent at the NIH, where he spent most of his scientific career. He strived to increase the diversity of the biochemistry study section by inviting young and emerging professors — men and women from all backgrounds — to be part of the review team. His aim was to allow them to learn the NIH peer-review system and improve their grant-writing skills. He was superb at this and at ensuring that a project received the best evaluation possible. As executive secretary, he also conducted a careful scientific assessment of the rapidly evolving field of biochemistry to justify the creation of new study sections in two emerging areas, molecular and physical biochemistry. As a result of this major accomplishment, Tol helped lead the scientific community through the revolutionary period that gave birth to molecular biology and permanently influenced the scientific landscape.
As chief of the MARC Branch at NIGMS, Tol made other seminal contributions. He was instrumental in changing the MARC Honors Undergraduate Training Program to the MARC Undergraduate Student Training in Academic Research, or U*STAR, a program that emphasized his vision for curricular improvement and state-of the-art research training.
He refocused the BRIDGES program while functioning temporarily as its acting director, created the Postbaccalaureate Research Education Program, encouraged professional societies to apply for funding to increase the participation of underrepresented students in biomedical and behavioral research, and established the Annual Biomedical Research Conference for Minority Students. He was especially proud of this meeting, because it achieved one of his dreams: to have a high-quality scientific meeting for minority students training in research. ABRCMS is now in its 13th year and is the largest professional conference for minority students planning to pursue advanced training in science, technology, engineering or mathematics. Last year, ABRCMS attracted about 3,300 attendees, including 1,700 undergraduate students.
Tol was truly one of a kind, and his legacy is monumental. He worked with and influenced an entire generation of biochemists. His lasting dream of a more diverse and well-prepared scientific workforce is being achieved through the numerous people he mentored, especially the many current and former MARC students who are pursuing research careers. His insightful comments and sensible advice as well as his humor and tact will be missed by those who were fortunate to know him.
Hinda Zlotnik (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a program director in the Capacity Building Branch of the Division of Training, Workforce Development and Diversity at the National Institute of General Medical Science. She worked with Toliver first as the MARC program director and later as chief of the Minority Biomedical Research Support branch at NIGMS.