Saturday, February 7, 2015

Paying respects to a giant

Today, another brief departure from digital education. Instead, I turn to events of yesterday, where I used my technology to record photographs and stories of my late great-uncle, Andrew Alm Benson.
Andrew Alm Benson

Uncle Andy (AAB, to some - because of his penchant for labeling everything with his initials) was a scientist of the highest caliber, best known for his work in establishing how carbon (in the form of carbon dioxide) is assimilated into plants - that is, how photosynthesis works. Biologists know the Calvin cycle (often called the Calvin-Benson cycle) because of AAB's work, using the then-hastily-avoided radioactive isotopes that were necessary to track the path of carbon from carbon dioxide into plants. In 1961, Melvin Calvin was the sole recipient of the Nobel Prize for this work, sparking a controversy over why Uncle Andy's key role had been overlooked.

Some of the amazing stories told by fellow scientists at Andy's celebration of life yesterday have helped me understand and appreciate the lineage of educators and scientists that I already knew had inspired me. George Lorimer, Andy's long-time colleague, noted that, before Andy's time, biochemistry textbooks only contained a handful of reaction pathways that students needed to learn about. After AAB's groundbreaking methodology that was useful for tracking metabolic intermediates, biochemistry textbooks had grown enormously, to the massive sizes they are today. Hence, as George put it, regarding his own research on photosynthesis and using a quote attributed to Isaac Newton, "If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants."

Others who spoke mentioned Andy's selflessness, often immediately changing the subject when pressed about his own accomplishments, instead heaping praises on students and collaborators. I also heard stories about AAB's powers of observation (and criticism), such as a time he was driving down the freeway with some students and quickly said, "Did you see that?!?" Nobody else had seen what Andy had observed: a cabinet-maker's business sign was, apparently, "slaunchwise" (crooked), and it was apparently an affront to Andy that those in such a craft would represent their business in such a manner.

Yesterday, my place in science, education and my family was reinforced. I arrive on campus at California State University, Fresno every day glad to have the opportunity (the privilege) of being paid to help my students discover how living organisms function and interact with each other and their environment. From now on, I will continue being an extremely organized person, as Uncle Andy was before me. I will keep on labeling items in my lab (and elsewhere) with my initials: JAR (an unfortunate set of initials, perhaps, but the middle A now carries renewed meaning). I will continue to tirelessly promote the efforts and successes of my students, and I will press them to be observant because, as we heard yesterday, you cannot interpret data if you do not see them and you do not record them.

I will remain focused on teaching, research and service efforts "conferring the greatest good on mankind" - a requirement of Nobel Prize winners and a quote that was often used to describe the lifelong achievements of Uncle Andy, my scientific giant.

Joseph Andrew Ross, La Jolla CA, 6 Feb. 2015

Andrew Alm Benson

Video interview with Uncle Andy