September 2010

Richard Hanson: A Maestro of Metabolism

He employs a similar style in lab, always looking to simplify matters and be as supportive as possible, and, with those modest guidelines, he has successfully shepherded more than 80 graduate students and postdoctoral fellows onward in their careers. He obviously has had some success in this regard, since his first graduate student, Shirley M. Tilghman, is the current president of Princeton University.

Richard Hanson and colleague Parvin Hakimi, who developed the PEPCK-Cmus mouse strain, stand by one of the treadmills where the “mighty mice” strut their stuff.

And, this has made Hanson one of Case Western Reserve University’s most celebrated educators; he has won numerous awards for his teaching and service, including the Hovorka Prize, one of the university’s highest awards, and was recently appointed a “Distinguished University Professor,” an honor that he shares with only six other current members of the university faculty. And, this month, the university will honor Hanson’s career in the lab and classroom with a special one-day symposium in his name.

However, official honors take a back seat to the personal acknowledgements from former students. “When I began my career in science, I thought that the most important thing that I would do was research, but, as I grow older, I realize that the greatest contribution that anyone can make in our society is to be a positive influence on the lives of those you teach,” he says. The fact that so many people still remember me and my course is touching, because it means that, in some small way, I have made a positive impact on their lives and careers. So, truthfully, some of the best things I hear start with, ‘Do you remember…?’”

A Lifelong Commitment

Part of Hanson’s dedication to teaching comes from remembering his own experiences; he notes he was fortunate to have several valuable mentors during his educational period— which, if you ask him, is still continuing.

It all started at high school in New Jersey in the 1950s, when his biology teacher, Sister Mary Cephus, helped instill a passion about the life sciences into a bright-eyed adolescent boy.

A pivotal moment, though, occurred at the next step in his education. Coming from a modest background, Hanson did not have much money for college, but, he found a great opportunity at Northeastern University in Boston, which offered a cooperative work program; students went to school for half of the year and then worked the other half to pay for it.

Hanson ended up working as a technician in the laboratory of Peter Bernfeld at Tufts University School of Medicine and experienced firsthand the many facets of biochemical research; these included science’s frustrations, but also the joys, such as the publication of his first-ever journal article in 1960, in the Journal of Biological Chemistry.

“That was a proud moment,” recalls Hanson, “because, in what was the golden age of biochemistry, I was a co-author on a paper that was published in the most prestigious biochemistry journal.”

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