Friday, August 30, 2013

Preaching the Microbial Gospel!

Classes begin next Tuesday...gulp! Still, I am very much looking forward to working with a new crop of students, and promoting my (only half humorous) concept of "microbial supremacy."  At that link, you can even read how I came to be called a "microbial supremacist," if you like.  My response?

Artwork by the talented Kaitlin Reiss (
I have long had this attitude.  I loved microbiology as an undergraduate at UCLA (Syd Rittenberg, William Romig, and Gary Wilcox had a huge impact on my early education into Matters Microbial™), and enjoyed working with "undomesticated" microbes as a PhD student, postdoc, and in the biotech industry. 

But I believe my "Saul of Tarsus" moment regarding microbiology occurred when I took the famous Microbial Diversity course at the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole, Massachusetts right after I returned to academia from biotech.  A wonderful history of this course, and its role in the careers of many microbiologists can be found here, authored by the great Ralph Wolfe.  

My instructors in 1996 (wow!) were the inimitable, wise, eloquent (and occasionally outrageous) Edward Leadbetter and Abigail Salyers.  To get a good sense of Abigail's disarming and subversive humor, listen to this.  And getting ahead of the game, even in (semi)-retirement, Ed was recently honored by the American Society for Microbiology with the D.C. White Research and Mentoring Award for this coming year.

To say that it was an inspirational experience with inspirational instructors would be a vast understatement. Ed and Abigail changed the way I looked at microbiology, period.  And forever. Plus they both stayed in touch with me after that course, mentoring and guiding me as an, ahem, slightly older student.

It was in collaboration with Abigail that my first "microbial motto" was born:

Courtesy of my wife, Dr. Jennifer J. Quinn, and her creative efforts.
I still love the expression "Prokaryotic Pride," though the work of Norman Pace and others has suggested that the "P-word" be expunged from microbiology.  Regardless of that debate, I think we could all agree that "First Evolved, Last Extinct" is accurate! I later came up with an alternative motto:  "Free the Organelles!" because of the simple fact that both mitochondria and chloroplasts were originally bacteria (alpha proteobacter relatives of modern Rickettsia and cyanobacteria, respectively), cruelly enslaved by primitive eukaryotes!

During my first stint at teaching and doing research at an undergraduate institution, a remarkable student named Rachel Hendrickson (now a dentist in Southern California) came up with an image to represent my perceived role in the microbiology classroom:

Many thanks to Rachel Hendrickson for making this design as a surprise for me, during a very rough time!
Again with the "P-word," but I truly am passionate on the subject. Even monomaniacal. 

Thus,  I am set to begin my proselytizing yet again on the topic of microbial supremacy in the classroom, starting next week. So much to tell them, and so little time...  This semester, I am teaching on a Tuesday-Thursday schedule, so there should be more time for student discussion and interaction. I cannot wait!  

In fact, I am fortunate enough to have been asked to give a talk (part of the Daedalus Society here on campus) on this topic to faculty, staff, alumni, and other interested people, in late September.  I have already received some good natured (I hope) ribbing on the invitation that was sent out a few days ago:

Artwork by the talented Kaitlin Reiss (
Now, I will do the best I can to promote microbial appreciation and literacy.  I doubt I can match the job of so many other engaging proponents of Matters Microbial™, such as the one and only Jon Eisen:

That said, whether or not I throw plush giant microbes out into the audience, I will have a good time.  And I will promote the One True Microbial Faith! I hope the audience likes it.

And my students, as well.

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I am happy to hear your comments and suggestions. I hope to avoid spammage. We shall see how that works out!