Testimonials for Pioneer Member William Ogren

George Bowes – I met Bill Ogren in the Fall 1968. After my PhD in London, I was offered a research associate position by Dick Hageman (Agronomy, University of Illinois). Upon arrival in Urbana, Dick indicated I could choose either research with him on nitrogen metabolism or on photosynthesis with “a bright young guy” in the USDA’s soybean lab. As a naïve PhD, I asked for a week to decide! Photosynthesis was nearer to my PhD phytochrome work, and Bill gave me an article by Ollé Bjorkman which indicated that the “carboxydismutase” enzyme (Rubisco) was a major limiting step in photosynthesis and potentially crop yields – a concept that we both thought worth of exploring. Also, Bill seemed like a great “young guy” with whom to collaborate as his first postdoc. Bill was interested in England and I was interested in learning about the US. So, we hit it off. I recall him explaining who Joe DiMaggio was in Simon and Garfunkel’s hit song and being invited to his home to watch the 1968 election results where “Hubey” Humphrey lost to Nixon, much to Bill’s displeasure. I particularly recall Friday afternoons, before leaving for the day, when we would sit around chatting and bouncing ideas off each other about oxygen inhibition of photosynthesis, the source of photorespiration, and why they occurred in some species but not others. These were very enjoyable times, but especially valuable and productive for me.

Bill and Dick were also a real encouragement when, after a year of hard work, I had no publishable data and I was ready to return to the UK with my tail between my legs. I’m glad I stayed, because it was in the next year or so that the methodological difficulties were worked out and we discovered Rubisco was competitively inhibited by oxygen and was the source of photorespiratory phosphoglycolate (oxygenase reaction). In contrast, we reported that phosphoenolypyruvate carboxylase, the initial carboxylating enzyme in C4 plants, was not inhibited by oxygen. These findings explained the fundamental difference between C3 and C4 plants. The role of Rubisco was not readily accepted by all in the scientific community, and a paper we sent to Science was rejected, but fortunately it was picked up by Nature which wrote an editorial on its importance. The scientific disagreements led to some lively and well-attended debates at Plant Physiology meetings with Bill and me on one side of the room and those with opposing views on the other. That was a fun and exciting time as Bill was not shy in sharing our position. Following our Rubisco discoveries Bill’s lab went on to many other substantive findings in photosynthetic carbon metabolism and thus he rightly deserves the attribution of “Pioneer” in plant biology. I’ll always be grateful to Bill and Dick for the opportunity, support and encouragement to work on Rubisco and their role in starting me on an enjoyable and rewarding career path in research teaching, and administration in plant biology.

Bill Campbell – I was a postdoc in Bill’s lab for five years, from 1987 through 1991, and in many ways that was one of the most exciting and productive periods of my professional life. As I was completing my Ph.D. in George Bowes’ lab at the University of Florida, I applied for several postdoc positions, hoping that I would be able to secure my first choice, a position in Bill’s lab. So, I was very excited when Bill offered me a postdoc position in 1986 during a conversation at the ASPP annual meeting in Baton Rouge. I was familiar with Bill’s work and the many graduate students and postdocs that preceded me in his lab, and I was happy to be able to continue my photosynthesis work under Bill’s mentorship.

In Bill’s lab I strengthened my background in plant biochemistry, and I learned new techniques that I continued to use throughout my career. Bill funded my travel to numerous ASPP/ASPB meetings and Gordon Conferences, and I was very appreciative of that support. My discussions with Bill regarding the interpretation my research results and planning future experiments helped me better understand my own research. I also learned from the many scientists that visited the University of Illinois because of Bill, and from those who spent time in his lab while I was working there. I was introduced to numerous fellow researchers through Bill, many for whom I was quite familiar with their work, and some of whom I established collaborations.

I enjoyed several Thanksgiving dinners at Bill’s home, and he and Carolyn were very welcoming to me and my family, as well as to the other members of the lab. During my time in Bill’s lab, he maintained a collegial and intellectually stimulating mix of graduate students and postdocs, and I enjoyed and benefitted from them as well.

After I accepted a university faculty position and left Bill’s lab, I often reflected on my time there (I still do), and I thought of how much I benefitted from my interactions and time in Bill’s lab. It had a positive and lasting effect on my career and on my life.

Chris Chastain – Bill Ogren is a true pioneer plant scientist and a magnificient mentor. With Bill, no idea from his students or postdocs worth exploring was turned away. He championed original and daring thinking that could challenge the insufficient understandings of the day, whether it be photorespiration or Rubisco. This lesson I carried with me for the rest of my career. I treasured my stint as a PhD student in his lab.

Jonathon Mark Chatfield – Memories of Working With Bill Ogren 1986-1988:  The most important message I got from Bill was spend your time thinking about the science and as little time as possible on other things (administration) that make a program go. Bill (Ogren) was a no nonsense administrator. His love of science drove him to minimize time on managing paper and delegate whenever it was prudent, and that left more time to visit the lab and find out what was happening. He would go to his mailbox daily, and if at all possible only handle paper once. By the time he got back to his office, all the mail had been read and handed off to whomever to take the next step. As he entered his office to sit at his desk and discuss topics with you, his desk looked like a pool table with nothing on top. He kept a clean desk and procrastination was not a behavior he encouraged. Lesson 1 – handle paper one time or less if possible. Dr. Ogren would come to the lab and do his rounds like a surgeon checking on patients – and you hoped that you were not dying when this happened. He would saunter over and smile, always smiling. I never saw him in an unpleasant state of mind. He kept that to himself. His approach line would be something like “What do we know today that we didn’t know yesterday?” That was your cue to spill your guts on how the experimental results had gone so the interpretation could be used to support the latest model on how things should work. Hopefully this view moved the program forward, or at worst gave us an idea on what to do next. You lived for the moment when your experimental results, that had been repeated, supported the lab consensus of how things worked. Lesson 2 – There is no better feeling than being the first to know how something really works. To see the interpretation of your lab notebook results, end up in a textbook 10-15 years later. I remember when Bill was president of ASPP, now ASPB, and he had to manage the supposition that “plant physiologists/biologists would prefer to have their annual meeting at a conference center in a swank hotel with plenty of bars and live entertainment as opposed to the dorms, classrooms and auditoriums of a Land Grant University, where there were plenty of crop fields and livestock. Who would have thunk it? So, to support this new view, Reno, Nevada was selected as the destination for the Annual Meeting and a casino (MGM Grand) replaced the Land Grant Campus (think Fort Collins, CO or Davis, CA). Well the Casino had tinted windows and that didn’t seem to matter unless you were a photobiologist. However, you weren’t sure what time of day it was unless you attended all sessions of the meetings-not likely. Having all-you-can-eat buffets was another attraction of this meeting and this must have been a miscalculation of the casino to offer this to poor academics that spent most of their time finding ways to increase the food supply of the world. Surprisingly, these college professors and students were not the greatest tippers. Lesson 3 – Even stiff scientists like getting away from their routine environment and enjoy discussing their work in an entertaining place that is not at all like the university they left behind. Yet another first for Dr. Bill Ogren – Great Scientist, Great Man, and he surrounded himself with many capable people that because of his administration were motivated to move plant science forward. The results speak for themselves…

Nan Eckardt – I was thrilled to work with Bill in the early 1990s, towards the end of his long and distinguished career. I was a postdoc with him for just one year before his retirement, but I nevertheless felt I learned from him. I greatly enjoyed our talks about his approach to science and some of the seminal discoveries he made in the 1970s and 80s on the function of Rubisco. It was an honor for me to work with this great scientist.

Don Ort – Bill was the inaugural Research Leader of the USDA/ARS Photosynthesis Research Unit at Urbana, IL, and offered me the opportunity to join the lab as it was being formed. It was my first real job and turned into a career. Bill ran the Unit with a very equalitarian management style and a focus on doing good science. There is no doubt Bill’s light touch leadership is a major reason the Research Unit and the scientists that work in it have been so successful over four decades.

Chris and Shauna Somerville – Bill was an inspiring and very supportive mentor. Whenever I needed something to support an experiment or had a new idea, or a question about plant physiology, I would knock on his office door and he invariably directed all his attention and energy to me. When I subsequently formed my own research group, I tried to support my own students and postdocs in a similar way, because it felt so empowering to be on the receiving end of his attention. I was also impressed by the way in which he developed hypotheses. In the days before the internet made literature searches facile, Bill seemed to know everything that had been published in his field of interest. He was attracted by papers that had data sets where the process in question was sampled many times so the “shape of the curves” was compelling – there were no three point lines in his analyses. I think he largely ignored whatever the authors were claiming and basically wrote his own analysis of what the data was saying. Some of his favorite papers were dog-eared from the many times he looked at the data. This approach was fundamental to the discovery of RuBP oxygenase, which required conviction in spite of many failed experiments. I don’t think i ever worked on a problem with similar intense focus as Bill had for some problems in photosynthesis and photorespiration. However, Bill’s approach to problems has remained like an icon to me of how science should be done.

Robert J. Spreitzer – Bill Ogren put the O on Rubisco. After that, it seems like he spent a huge amount of time helping me get a postdoctoral position, and then helping me get and maintain an academic position. I’m sure that he helped all his other students as well, but it certainly felt like special treatment to me.

Jack Widholm – I collaborated with Bill at the University of Illinois for many years, trying to genetically select for photorespiratory deficiency, and I watched his steady progress towards understanding its cause. This was exciting!