(Editor's note: The following is an excerpt from an interview with Roger Beachy that took place at the "Winding Your Way through DNA" symposium at the University of California San Francisco in 1992. At the time, Dr. Beachy was head of the Division of Plant Biology at the Scripps Research Institute in La Jolla, California.)
Interviewer: On a more personal level, why do you like doing what you're doing?
Roger Beachy: I've been in plant biology as most of us have sort of as a kid. You go to 4H, you grow gardens, you see how things grow, and you do a little experiment in your backyard. But it wasn't really until high school as a junior and senior, I had a fantastic biology teacher. He happened to have been trained in plant biology, so when he taught biology he used a lot of plants as reference material.
I then went to a small liberal arts college in Indiana, which had on its faculty four scientists who in fact were plant biologists. And they influenced a very large number of us to work in plant biology.
But I also was convinced that I didn't want to work in a more applied sense in agriculture - there are many fine crop scientists, crop breeders, and plant pathologists. I became interested in finding out why plants were resistant to diseases, and then began asking the question: What is the cellular basis of a disease reaction? Well, that requires a reductionist approach. You simply couldn't do it by descriptive biology, by looking under a microscope only, but you had to go deeper. And as the genetic revolution, i.e., the recombinant DNA revolution began in the early 70s, I got really turned on to the possibility of making gene alterations.
It was really a seminar that I heard at Cornell University in 1976, which sort of portended all this happening - that transformation of large organisms such as plants and mice and other organisms were going to make biology terribly exciting. And from then it just began to be part of my soul, I guess. And it motivated me to do the kind of work we are doing now.
Interviewer: What was the name of your high school teacher? Why were you so excited by him?
Roger Beachy: I was first introduced to the wonders of science by a very exciting biology teacher named Delmer Culp in Goshen, Indiana, in high school. Culp knew how to enthuse students, not by beating us over the head with facts, but by teaching experimentation. We began with hands-on experiments as sophomores, whether they were smoke bombs or legitimate experiments, it really didn't matter. Because it allowed us to carry out real experiments, not simply make-work experiments, but things that he truly didn't know how they would turn out all the time.
And with that kind of attitude, even if he'd ask you to do something obscene, like collect butterflies, you would do it because you knew that you were going to learn something new out of this. And you did. You learned the shape of the abdomen and the color of their wings, and what makes one butterfly different from another, and you begin to apply sort of reductionist observations. And from there it was history.
The way that many of us in my high school continued was in fact in science, and a number of us have gone on to graduate schools and independent research. And to me it is amazing what a good high school teacher can do. I was also trained in high school education; I thought I was going to be a secondary teacher, but I didn't count on my inability to relate to the students in a teacher-student relationship, and it was so difficult to stand apart; I think I was too young at the time. But I also knew that it took a very special kind of person to be a good teacher. And I wasn't sure I was that kind. I knew I liked laboratory work on the other hand.
Excerpted from the "Winding Your Way through DNA" symposium transcripts - with permission of the University of California, San Francisco.