Hugh Robertson

 

I'm South African by birth and upbringing. I completed essentially all my undergraduate and graduate study at the University of the Witwatersrand, in Johannesburg. Having been an avid naturalist as long as I can remember, especially enjoying bird-watching, there was never any question as to what I wanted to do. But I moved to insects as an undergraduate after completing an entomology course in my junior year, followed by a great insect collecting trip that summer (1976). For my Ph.D. in Zoology I studied mating behavior and speciation in both Drosophila flies (lab work in the winter) and dragonflies (field work in the summer). One species in particular is only found on the mountain streams where I could combine field work with my other passion at the time, rock climbing.

I received a postdoctoral fellowship to go to the Zoology Department at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, in 1982, and continued studies of behavioral ecology of dragonflies and behavioral genetics of Drosophila flies for three more years. Unable to get a job in that field, I was lucky enough to get a second postdoctoral appointment for two years in the Genetics Department there, working on the genetics and molecular biology of the P transposable element or jumping gene in Drosophila.

I came here as an assistant professor in the Entomology Department in 1987, and in 1991 moved on to study another family of transposable elements called mariners that occur in the genomes of insects and other animals including ourselves. I am now a full professor in the Departments of Entomology and Cell and Developmental Biology. My laboratory now has a new line of research involving olfactory receptor proteins in insects, and more recently we are getting in questions concerning insect genomes, many of which are being sequenced. Today we are sequencing insects genomes ourselves.

My passion outside of the lab these days is sailing, windsurfing and kiteboarding, locally at Clinton Lake, but I also travel extensively and have sailed at the Columbia River Gorge, San Francisco, Hawaii, Corpus Christi, Cape Hatteras, and Mauritius. Kiteboarding is my latest passion, mostly at Cape Hatteras on the Outer Banks in North Carolina. I married an artist, Christina Nordholm, in 1994 and we have a 13-year-old daughter Erica. Christina's 25-year-old son Gabriel is a student at UIUC. In addition to IB 104 I teach a 500 level course on molecular genetics of insects, primarily for Entomology graduate students.

 

Bettina Francis

 

I was born in Germany, but immigrated to the United States before I started school. As a result, English is definitely my best language, and my upbringing is a mixture of American and European. I grew up in the New York suburbs and majored in biology at New York University, then went to the University of Michigan to study genetics. At Michigan I met and married George Francis, and when he accepted a position in the Math department here, we moved to Champaign-Urbana. We have lived here ever since, and both of our sons graduated from UIUC. I had finished my dissertation research before we left Ann Arbor, but still had to write the thesis, which took several years. Once I received my Ph.D., I worked as a research associate in various departments on this campus, and in 1981 I became an assistant professor in the Institute for Environmental Studies. I am now an associate professor in the Entomology Department, and consider myself an environmental toxicologist, specializing in the irreversible effects of chemicals, and especially of pesticides, on mammalian development .

That is the biography - and if it is not quite as brief as "There was a man. He was born and he lived, then he died" - it is not much more informative. How did I get from a fascination with classical genetics to teratology - which translates as the study of monsters? From teratology to environmental toxicology? Why pesticides? And why am I in the Entomology department? That is a much longer story, but it illustrates Burns dictum that "the best-laid plans of men do often gang awry." Or, as Shakespeare phrased it: "There is a tide in the affairs of men which, if taken at the flood, can lead to fortune." But it also illustrates the role of chance, or providence, in shaping a career.

I cannot claim always to have known what I wanted to do -- my ambitions changed almost yearly until I started college. Doctor, veterinarian, teacher, farmer, novelist -- each had their turn. But once I decided to major in biology, I knew I wanted to do research: research in genetics.

Chance intervened. In college, I worked in a laboratory where one of the graduate students was studying the effects of thalidomide. This was a supposedly safe sedative prescribed for pregnant women, which caused terrible birth defects in some 8,000 children worldwide. I was fascinated by the idea that chemicals could change development, and especially by the specificity of the interactions. Thalidomide drastically damages human embryos, but not those of mice or rats. Such differences between species in response to developmental toxicants is remarkably common. Cortisone, for example, rarely if cause human birth defects, but easily causes cleft palate in mice, rats and rabbits. At Michigan, I was fortunate in finding an adviser who let me follow my interests, even though they were not his. So my thesis research focused on how genetics and environmental chemicals interact to cause birth defects. This is still the center of my research.

Looking for jobs is always problematic for academic couples, whose career opportunities are limited to universities. In the Midwest, this often means getting two jobs in the same university, even if one of those jobs is not ideal. Since I had not even finished my Ph.D. when we moved to Champaign-Urbana, mine was obviously the secondary career. For several years I worked part-time in various laboratories on campus. Serendipity came in the form of a seemingly dead-end job: a one year temporary position reviewing the literature on the disposal of 42 pesticides. In the event, it was my introduction to environmental toxicology, and especially to the environmental effects of pesticides. When I began the literature review, I "knew" little more about pesticides than "DDT is bad". By the end of the year I not only understood how the miracle of DDT turned into an ecological nightmare, but was convinced that pesticides are the most fascinating chemicals any toxicologist could wish to study.

Pesticides, like antibiotics, are designed to kill. It is their only reason for existence. But the side-effects of pesticides are as diverse as their intended effects. A weed-killer causes birth defects in rats and mice. Will it do so in humans? An insecticide causes paralysis in people and chickens, but not in rats or mice - and only in adult chickens. Why? How does DDT thin the eggshells of birds? Is there a connection between widespread DDT contamination and the increased incidence of human breast cancer? Here was a research area that combined relevance and basic science and (most intriguingly) allowed me to examine the interactions of intrinsic factors and environmental influences. I was hooked on toxicology.

Five years later, I was able to join the faculty of the Institute for Environmental Studies and, when that unit was dissolved in 1996, I joined the Entomology Department. I am still fascinated by the diverse toxic effects of pesticides, and not only continue to study their diverse toxicities, but teach a course in Pesticide Toxicology. I also teach an overview course, Environmental Toxicology, that tries to give nontoxicologists the tools to understand current - and future! - environmental controversies ranging from global warming to mechanisms of carcinogenesis. I still do not know about DDT and breast cancer, but I am studying the effects of nitrofen (a weed-killer) on gene expression in mouse embryos.

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