Saturday, April 26, 2014

Happy Birthday to a Great Microbiologist and a Microbial Hero™!

Just a short post, in honor of the great Moselio Schaechter's birthday today.  

If you don't know Elio, here is a short and interesting recent newspaper article that gives a nice "snapshot" of the gentleman.  

Elio is the person in charge of the American Society for Microbiology's insightful, informative, and indispensable blog about all the microbial wonders surrounding and within us, which is called "Small Things Considered."  If you don't follow this ASM-sponsored blog, you really should.  I discover things I did not know pretty much twice a week. The blog is a continuing and grand resource for me, and for my students; a microbial feast and festival of unsolvable "thought questions" (Elio's thought provoking and delightful "Talmudic Questions"), late breaking discoveries, reviews of emerging techniques and concepts, and historical perspectives.  It is easily as valuable (if not more so) than any textbook.

Elio is a remarkable person, in a wide variety of ways.  You can read a bit about his impressive scientific biography here.  He has also written about his life, which is very much worth the reading, here.  Born in Italy, raised in Ecuador, and trained in microbiology in the United States, Elio is one of a kind.  He was the first to determine that the rickettsia were bacteria by observing them divide and characterizing their cell wall.  He later studied bacterial physiology in Denmark, and spent much of his subsequent research career studying bacterial growth and cell division.  Elio spent many years at chairing the Department of Molecular Biology and Microbiology at Tufts University before retiring to San Diego (where he is more active than many academics).  In his copious free time™, he received numerous awards for excellence in teaching, was President of the American Society for Microbiology, consulted with media types, wrote textbooks, worked with the American Academy of Microbiology, and nurtured his interests in mushrooms and hiking.  

I become tired just thinking about all of that, but Elio is nothing if not elegant and energetic in his enthusiasms.

I wrote to Elio quite a few years ago, admiring the weird and wonderful presentations of Matters Microbial™ (as I call them) on the "Small Things Considered" website.  His response was to ask me to write some essays of my own for the blog.  And in fact Elio (along with the delightful and insightful Merry Youle) helped me become an "Associate Blogger" at "Small Things Considered" for a few years.  I very much enjoyed writing what I did, and continue to do so from time to time.  I certainly learned a great deal from that association.

Elio has been a unwavering beacon of positivity and supportive words during both good times and bad in my life, which is remarkable given that I have only met him a few times.  That said, he looms large in my life.  I cannot easily express my gratitude, so I do so here.

Most of all, I found that Elio's insights in the development of microbiology have had a great deal of influence on me.  I recommend this essay of his, from a 2009 issue of "Microbe," as an illustration of what I mean: "Paradigm Shifts, Paradigm Drifts." My microbiology students read that essay during the first week of class, and it shapes the structure of my course. 

So in summary, I had found some intellectual common cause with Elio and his merry band.  I do my best to promote his attitudes about Overwhelming Microbial Goodness™ regarding Matters Microbial (yes, some day I would like to write a book with that title).  In conversation on Twitter one day with Jonathan Eisen, I was struck by his comment about having "Microbial Heroes."  I have mentioned some of my Microbial Heroes™in the past on this blog, including Carl Woese and Abigail Salyers.  

I can think of perhaps fourteen microbiologists who have had a large impact on my life, and I will be writing about them on this blog.  Certainly Moselio Schaechter merits inclusion in my list of Microbial Heroes!  He certainly has had a great impact on the way I think about and teach microbiology to undergraduate students.

My artistic mathematician wife, Dr. Jennifer J. Quinn, decided to help me "immortalize" my Microbial Heroes with the childhood art-project favorite of "shrinky dinks."  Jenny took a photograph of Elio from the internet, created her artistic interpretation on the plastic, and shrank it. Here is the process.  

And like my other Microbial Heroes, Elio is in my office, hopefully to inspire me from my enthusiasms wane for Matters Microbial.

The carved stone I have written about before.  It is from Pliny the Elder, and the quotation runs: "Nature is to be found in Her entirety nowhere more than in Her smallest creatures." I can think of few scientific disciplines that more perfectly delineate that sentiment than the microbial sciences.

Thank you, Elio, for all of the support and kind words.  You remain an inspiration to me in so many ways.  My very, very best wishes to you and your family, and happy birthday!  I hope to see you in Boston at the ASM General Meeting.

Readers, who are your Microbial Heroes?  Why did you choose them?

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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!