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Retiring Davidson Professor Pioneered Modern Genetic Research

Some time this month, scientists will announce that they have sequenced every gene in Drosophilia melanogaster, the fruit fly that has served as the experimental media for Brown Professor of Biology, John Williamson and several generations of geneticists.
Senior Angela Fisher and John Williamson review the independent research project she conducted with him this semester.

However, Williamson's current students at Davidson learn genetics without ever seeing a fly! Instead of counting a jar full of Drosophilia every 14 days to determine the number with certain color eyes, or missing wings, or forked bristles, they analyze printouts. Sequencing Drosophilia, and the ongoing work of the Human Genome Project to sequence the genes of Homo sapiens, promises to produce startling new capabilities in fighting disease and producing food.

Williamson retires at the end of this semester from his position at Davidson with an excellent perspective on an entire era of scientific research. The first genetics textbook he studied as an undergraduate at N.C. State University in the mid 1950s didn't even mention DNA, but one of his recent publications describes a laboratory method for using a particular protein as a model for studying DNA at several levels of the undergraduate curriculum.

He grew up in rural eastern North Carolina with three siblings as a farm child, but his curiosity about the natural world led him to pursue a career in education. He graduated from N.C. State in agricultural science, studied animal breeding at Cornell for his master's degree, and did Ph.D. studies in genetics at the University of Georgia. Following two post-doctoral fellowships, he was hired into a research position at the University of Calgary in Canada. "They were just developing their department, and it was an exciting time," he recalled. "They hired 18 new biologists in 18 months!"

His "beast of choice" at Calgary became Drosophilia melanogaster, and he joined a small, developing community of genetic researchers working to unlock the secrets of heredity and health. Williamson knew all the big names, including the original DNA duo, Watson and Crick. Fruit flies became the model organism for understanding the mechanics of genetic research, and led science toward the burgeoning field of molecular biology, including the Human Genome Project. His two-year contract at Calgary turned into a 12 year stay, including promotion to full professor and time as department chair.

It also resulted in dozens of publications in journals about radiation genetics and biochemical genetics of Drosophilia melanogaster, part of a lifetime record of 107 such articles (so far!). He thanks former faculty dean T.C. Price Zimmermann for offering him the position of professor and chair of Davidson's biology department in 1981. Not only did he cherish the idea of moving back closer to his Tarheel relatives, he relished the switch from a research environment to a teaching institution.

A New Challenge

His mission at Davidson was converting the department from classical, "lecture-and-lab" methodology to a modern research oriented department. "Biology used to be dead animals and walking around outside," said Williamson.

He has fulfilled those goals by becoming mentor, teacher, researcher, and administrator. He established his own research projects and has involved dozens of students in them. He hired faculty with an interest in shared research, and sought grants to fund the equipment required to facilitate research. He was successful in getting major grants in the early 1980s from the Pew Foundation and the Hughes Foundation, and began acquiring equipment such as a spectrophotometer, centrifuges, scintillation counters, new microscopes, and computers. The biology and physics department set up the first local area network on campus. His efforts as department chair until 1993, as well as the recent construction of the Watson Life Sciences Building, have created a model department at Davidson.

Students have responded by making biology one of the top three most popular majors in recent years. Williamson said, "We expected students to do research, hired young professors willing to involve them in research, and provided facilities that made it attractive. The college has put a lot of resources into making research part of the undergraduate experience, and has reaped rewards from it."

Large in stature and deliberate in movement, he speaks with a gruffness that only reveals his warmth over time. Students are sometimes intimidated by his demeanor and academic demands, but those who respond discover a rich learning experience. One of his greatest satisfactions has been watching student research collaborators continue their scientific growth in graduate school and the professional world beyond.

The Department: Research and Development

He has helped lead the college not only in developing the department here, but in exporting its methodologies. While at Calgary, he helped found the American Biology Laboratory Education (ABLE) association, which brings together members at many levels of science education to share information and teaching tips. He has led the Davidson department's involvement in that organization, as well as in posting teaching protocols on the Web, where they are accessed by students and teachers as far away as Malaysia.

His primary personal research has been with enzymes that use NADP+ as a co-enzyme, working to purify and characterize them in a number of different species. With that background, he most recently developed with colleagues a broad curriculum for students at several levels of college biology to use IDH as a model enzyme. The department has earned an NSF grant to develop that curricular structure.

Williamson is ready to leave teaching and devote that time to other interests. Despite a steady record of publications, he figures he's a little out of date in the field. He says old-style geneticists like him who did breeding-and-counting experiments became obsolete about 1980. "You had to get on the DNA bandwagon about that time," he said. "I followed the tune of the bandwagon, but wasn't on it."

He continued, "To do now the type of research I did then, you don't even need the fly any more. All you need is some DNA. You can do things tremendously quicker now, and do things we didn't even know enough about to ask questions."

The Future

Williamson will make a clean break from the college, and doesn't plan to teach again. He enjoys yard and garden cultivation, plans to restore a 1948 Ford pickup truck, play more bridge, and travel more with his wife, Marcia. His love for genetics transcends his teaching career, and he will continue a longtime involvement with dog breeding. His maintains a greenhouse in his yard, and will continue to cultivate and raise hostas and rhododendrons, azaleas and camellias. He will also continue his quiet neighborliness, helping elderly citizens with home maintenance and yard work, and giving away bushels of grapefruits and oranges for the holidays.

As he leaves the stage to a younger generation, he acknowledges the challenges that his quickly evolving field faces, but maintains confidence in the outcome. He sees genetic research leading toward drugs that more specifically and efficiently fight disease, as well as dramatically increasing the food supply.

He said, "Advances in genetic research are moving exponentially, and society moves at a lot slower pace. So law and ethics and sociology haven't been able to digest yet what we've already learned in research. But the more we understand genetics, the more promise we see in it. I think we can apply that promise for a better society. The future of biology is wonderful, so I have to be an optimist."

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