Remembering our forebears

I like to tell a story to the BIO230 students at the start of the semester, describing why I find the science of Microbiology so endlessly fascinating. Many years ago, my father’s first teaching gig was teaching Microbiology to allied health students at the University of Delaware. He and the other Micro faculty would periodically rotate through the responsibility of a class at one of UD’s satellite campuses in southern Delaware, meaning that the family station wagon would be filled up with compound microscopes once a week. Before he’d take the scopes back to campus after the class was done, one or two of them would make it to the kitchen table, so that the family could take turns looking at what ever the class had been studying the day before, from bacteria to pond scum. I’ve wondered whether my siblings or our mother found this as exciting as the 12-year old me did, however I’ve never gotten tired of being able to see something with the microscope that was invisible without it. I point to this type of childhood experience as the start of my life with science.

Later, as I began to think more carefully about how scientists accomplish their tasks–in high school science classes for instance, and then all through college classes–Dad was an integral part of the learning process. For questions I had in high school biology, I would come to him with questions about biochemical pathways, about proteins and enzymes, about evolution. I recall learning about chlorophyll in class, and asking him later about how it worked. His explanation at the time was beyond what I was able to understand, but his gift was that he helped me to see the gaps in what I knew, showing me where I could proceed–this for me was the essence of learning.

In college and in graduate school I would send him drafts of papers that I was working on for his comments. As all former students of his could attest, Dad was very liberal, almost humorously so, with the red pen, and I suspect that some of them would be hugely frustrated with that level of marginal commentary. His written commentary was not restricted to student papers; he would sometimes buy two copies of books, and use one of them for extensive marking up inside. My papers would be essentially unrecognizable when they come back to me, however they were always better for the experience.

Recently, I’ve had the pleasure of being sent his papers for my commentary. He’d been working recently on a paper celebrating the life of Albert Jan Kluyver1, who was a professor at Delft Technical University in the Netherlands in the first half of the 20th century. Kluyver’s contribution to Biology was to put forward the notion that there exists a “unity of life”, and we can see that unity in cellular biochemistry. Kluyver put forward the aphorism “from the butyric acid bacterium to the elephant; it is all the same” which to my mind, states this idea of “unity” in an elegant and poetic manner. Dad’s thesis with this paper was that modern Biology frequently misses some of these historical antecedents, and furthermore the focus purely on genetic unity that is currently in vogue does a serious disservice and sometimes distorts that earlier work. I think one of Dad’s intentions on bringing these scientists into today’s light is to remind us that many ideas in and out of science have been considered by others before, perhaps not with the same rigor or from the same direction that we might examine them today, but those earlier viewpoints have much that they can tell us.

It is a responsibility of the scientist then to carefully identify these antecedents and to celebrate them. My father, Rivers Singleton, Jr. died this past week, and we miss him. His legacy to us is to remind us that there are always questions that lead to good ideas which provoke further questions, but by carefully and thoughtfully examining those questions in the context of what has already been studied, they can become great ideas.

1. [The title of this post is from Dad’s paper on Kluyver; I am appropriating it here, in his memory]


About ycpmicro

My name is David Singleton, and I am an Associate Professor of Microbiology at York College of Pennsylvania. My main course is BIO230, a course taken by allied-health students at YCP. Views on this site are my own.

Posted on March 1, 2015, in Meta. Bookmark the permalink. Comments Off on Remembering our forebears.

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