exploring complexity in life

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Gregory A. Buck, Ph.D.
Director, Center for the Study of Biological Complexity
Professor, Microbiology & Immunology
School of Medicine
E-mail: buck@hsc.vcu.edu

What drew you to the life sciences and why did you choose your specific field?
My sixth grade science teacher, who taught more about biology and life sciences in one year than I learned in the next 10 years combined, inspired me with a ’fire in the belly’ about science, and biological science in particular. Believe it or not, this is probably where I first learned scientific rigor as well.
From the day I learned the intrinsic elegance of the ’Watson-Crick’ model of DNA structure, I have been fascinated with the chemical code of life, and the field of genetics that it drives. My primary focus on microbial genetics was due to the tractability of these organisms to genetic manipulation, and the potential to develop a global or system-wide understanding of the organism.

Why did you decide to go beyond the lab into the classroom to teach?
I’m not sure who said if first, but there is much truth to the statement “You don’t learn it until you teach it.” However, this question really relates to why one would work in an academic institution rather than in a government or industrial lab, where one can perform more focused research without the other distractions of academic life. The answer goes beyond the satisfaction of forming and influencing young scientists. It involves the ability to perform self-directed, truly creative research in an environment that encourages it. It involves the necessity of the academic scientist to survive or fail based on his or her own creative abilities. It involves the intellectual challenge of working together in small groups of students and mentors, to develop new ways to manipulate life and address important biological questions. Academic life of the late 20th century has truly been a crucible of learning and research, and this trend seems to be continuing in the 21st century. The results of this academic research environment have been astonishing.

What is your philosophy of teaching? How do you teach and why do it that way?
[This is a short answer question??!]. I like to teach operationally, showing students how specific experiments lead to particular conclusions. I teach this way because it is the way I learn best.

What is it you want your students to leave your class with after it’s all over?
An appreciation for the complex elegance of biological systems, an interest in learning more about them.

What do you want students who may be interested in any of the life sciences to know?
The life sciences provide an incredible breadth of career opportunities. The ’golden age’ of Life Sciences is just beginning, signaled by the hallmark achievement of sequencing the human genome. It is difficult to predict the changes that we will see in upcoming decades from the current biomedical revolution spawned by the genomic work. Aside from the technical advances, there are ethical decisions to be made. It is critical that everyone be well-informed. Life scientists are prepared to provide the technical information underlying these decisions, but most agree they are not qualified to make the decisions. These must be made by the lay public.

What do you get out of teaching?
I learn while I teach. Teaching forces a scientist to focus more broadly than research. Research inherently requires focus. Focus on a specific problem. Without focus, answers to experimental questions are not attainable. Teaching forces scientists to look beyond his or her specific experiment. This broadens the scientist’s outlook, and provides him or her a resource he or she would not have otherwise had. This is invigorating and rewarding, especially when the new knowledge leads to new understanding or research avenues.

I see students learning. There comes a time in a student’s career when he or she ’gets it.’ In the words of my graduate mentor, “they take responsibility for” their own learning and/or research. For some, this is a gradual process of maturation, for others it is sudden. Either way, it is quite satisfying to be involved in.

Do you learn anything from your students?
Most of my teaching has been at the graduate and professional levels. I have learned much from my students, both in knowledge of science and knowledge of life. Most mentors would agree that they have not succeeded if their students don’t at some point transcend them in their depth of knowledge in their research. Thus, learning and teaching are both two-way streets: mentor teaches student, but at some point mentor learns from student. This is how the partnership succeeds.

What do you do in your “free” time? Do you have any interesting or unusual hobbies?
My current ’hobby’ or avocation is my three and a half year old daughter, Joana. She is truly the ’light of my life.’ Otherwise, we love Brazil (my wife’s native country), and spend several weeks there every year. Before Joana, we traveled more extensively. Now, we are less adventurous, primarily for lack of energy.

I love languages, but can only really speak Portuguese and French. We go to every opera we can. My favorite is probably Don Giovanni, but I would like to see the full Ring Cycle someday. I have always liked water sports, including swimming, snorkeling and diving, and winter sports, including skiing, skating and hockey.

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Virginia Commonwealth University
VCU Life Sciences
P.O. Box 842030
1000 W. Cary St.
Richmond, Virginia 23284-2030
Phone: (804) 827-5600
Email: lifesci@vcu.edu
Updated: 09/29/2011