An hour with Professor Ronald H Bauerle
Posted by tumicrobiology on February 19, 2006
(This interview has been published in the Microcosm, Vol 2. Thanks Keshav for sending us this!)
|Prof. Dr. Ronald H Bauerle of Department of Biology, University of Virginia taught Microbial Genetics at the Central Department of Microbiology (CDM) from January to July 2005 as a senior Fulbright professor.
Something about Prof Bauerle, who has been a source of inspiration to all students and faculties at the CDM.Education
Here is an excerpt of the interview taken by Keshav P Koirala exclusively for the Microcosm.
Keshav: If I ask you to describe yourself, what would you say?
Prof. Baurele: What kind of description you are interested in? Professional, personal… does it matter?
Prof. Bauerle: Personally I am a liberal-minded, liberal-thinking person in terms of interacting with people. Perhaps that is because I come from a very poor working class and very large family — four sisters and no brother, my mother very much like a Nepali working woman, taking care every thing at home and also working to earn money for the family. And I was fortunate in that there were decisions made when I was very young about my education, which let me first thinking and doing other things than working at the local steel plants where most of the young men and my family used to go to work. I was fortunate to go to bachelor’s level college and get excited about Microbiology, and go to graduate school and go to PhD. I was very very fortunate. So, I am a person who appreciates the branches. The important branch parts of my life ended up in very positive directions that I took. Sometimes you rather branch point and you choose the wrong branch. I felt that I was fortunate enough to pick out right branches. So I am very thankful for my life that’s been a nice life. But still I am connective to working people because my roots were actually in all my family, and they were all working people. That’s not all true about academic people. Specially, people who advance degrees very often may come from families where which is expected and it is easier thing. So I will not call myself an aristocrat; I will call myself a member of a proletariat.
Keshav: Where were you borne and where were you brought up?Prof. Bauerle: I was borne in a city called Newport in Kentucky which is a state that is towards the centre of the country and somewhat to the east part of a larger city across a big river, and that large city is in the state of Ohio us caked Cincinnati. So many people live on the Kentucky side of the river even though they work across the river in Ohio where there were big plants for making automobiles and heavy machinery, and big companies: an industrial city in the middle of the country. Very different from the cities on the East Coast and West Coast.
Keshav: What has been the value of religion in your life? Do you believe in God?
Prof. Bauerle: I was raised as a Christian because my mother and her family were Christians: Roman Catholic. I went to Roman Catholic schools, the private schools which were very very common in my home town. Public schools were terrible in quality; Catholic schools were quite much better. I was expected to be part of that religion but when I became an independent thinking man, I felt that I could not reconcile religion with science. So I am an atheist. But I am not a rabid atheist. I respect religion. We did not raise one of our daughters’ children in any religion, we let them decide themselves. When they were young, they wanted to go to church with their friends, and we let them. Another daughter of mine is now adult; she has joined a sort of an unstructured religion called Unitarian which does not necessarily require believing in a supreme being — you are free to believe what ever you wish to believe. She has some feelings. For me, I cannot reconcile deity with my mind.
Keshav: Who has been or what has been you source of inspiration? Do you have any role model in your life?
Prof. Bauerle: I had role models, I think, from the time I was very young boy. And these tended to be teachers. There was no role model in my family; uncle, grandfather and my dad, they were actually, I think, antithetical for being proper role model. But at different places along my life, there have been teachers who have influenced me — including teachers in graduate school. Some of my school heroes tend to be colleague scientists who I respect not only for the science but also for their humanity. One of the people who I really respect a lot is Charles Yanofsky whom I have known for 40 years and I spent there in his lab 10 and four years ago. An outstanding scientist and fantastic humanitarian. There are few individuals like that who I respect because of their abilities both for scientific and personal.
Keshav: If you want to name a few, who they would they be?
Prof. Bauerle: Well, Charles Yanofsky is one of my heroes from post-doctoral level, and from graduate school, professor named Seymour Benzer — very famous scientist — but he was not a friend. He was more an inspirational type of person because of his intellect. He did not have great social graces and very humorous guy…very hard to get to know for pursuit. But when I was in graduate school, what I learned from him may have changed the direction that I was going. My major professor also was person whom I have respected as a person not as much academically and intellectually. But Seymour Benzer was intellectual. Adolf Garner, my major professor, was my crystal role model. Unfortunately, he died at very young age, less than 50 from the heart attack. When I was younger, I was influenced by several teachers – especially at high school level; I still remember some of them. So, it looks like I was a sort of grooming in an academic environment. They were the people who were giving guidance and inspiration.Keshav: What has been the role of your family in your professional life? How much have your family members supported you?
Prof. Bauerle: Oh sure! First my wife as well as my daughters have been very supportive. I think that they appreciate that being an academic, scientist is an unusual fate like individual’s schedule – not necessarily like a businessman. And there are pressures that are different with may be their other friends, their parents’ experience who were not academicians. So, I feel that I got all the support and appreciation for the accomplishment. My wife is very capable. But we were married very young. She actually developed her intellectual activities during and after child-raising. She was only 20 years old and barely at high school. Her whole psyche was developed in addition to the feelings of responsibility while raising several children, which she did really well. It has never been a struggle… If now and then I say that I will be home for dinner six o’clock and I get home at 9:30, it certainly is not well appreciated, especially when I forgot to telephone.
Keshav: From working class family to the world of science and academics that too in such an elite university (University of Virginia), what do you consider to be the turning point in your life?
Prof. Bauerle: I don’t think that there is every one turning point. I think there are multiple turning points. There are different phases in everybody’s life. I probably have four or five of these turning points. Important things have happened that set in one direction instead of another direction that let me in city in Kathmandu, Nepal.
Keshav: What has been your principle of life?
Prof. Bauerle: That is a difficult question to answer. I think the one thing is to appreciate humanity and to consider all people to be equally human beings: notwithstanding their conditions. This sort of thing makes very difficult for me to understand and to deal with: caste system in our society like her in Nepal. I was raised in a condition where there was something similar to a caste system —racially based one. I have no idea why but when I was young I could not understand the segregation of black and white America; discrimination was there. When you see black persons, you don’t want to be close to them, you don’t talk to them I felt this does not make sense. So I had friends from the black community. It is interesting because my wife felt exactly the same way when she was young. She too did not understand it. I think main principle is considering all humanity is the same. If I belong to a caste, it is the caste of man. I think tolerance is an important principle; not hating someone at just they justly disagree with you. It is important for everyone to appreciate scholarship and the attainment of knowledge; this is of the higher things that man can stride to do in order to learn, constantly learn throughout the life.Keshav: As a professional and as a true human being, what gives you satisfaction?
Prof. Bauerle: Nice things, great work of art…A kind act which is going on on the street as you are driving through crowded area when you see someone being good to somebody, helping someone. I enjoy get pleasure from reading an outstanding piece of scientific work. I don’t particularly like material things very much. It’s not important for me to have a big fancy car. I love nature; I like to be out in nature. I really get pleasure form interacting with my family and friends, my close friends. There are many things . I love music and it is wonderful to go to a chamber concert or to see a exciting new ballet which I like very much.
Keshav: When did you start your professional career? Prof. Bauerle: It depends on what do you mean by professional career. My professional job at the University of Virginia is since 1969. But I had previous position as an assistant professor for three years in Texas. Then I moved to Virginia.
Keshav: How did you come to Nepal?
Prof. Bauerle: I came to Nepal because I decided to apply for a Fulbright, which necessarily mentioned that I would be going to a developing country whether it is in Central America, Africa or South Asia. My wife and I had made a three-week visit in India some years ago and I wanted to return. So, I started looking at available Fulbright position in Indian university. And, because of the proximity of Nepal, I came across the opportunity in Nepal. I really did not know about Nepal and Nepali universities. So started using computer, learned about Nepal and what’s going on…. I contacted people at both KU and TU …. I was invited by both places. I realised that TU is the place that matched in terms of what I’d be teaching. So, I wrote an application to come to TU, the Central Department of Microbiology. And I was selected. So really started out at the focus in India and by chance expanded. I looked to Bangladesh; I looked to Pakistan and other countries in South Asia. That’s how it happened. Keshav: So, are you happy to be Nepal?
Prof. Bauerle: Yes. It’s been a wonderful experience. You know, it’s so drastically different from the environment I live in the United States. My wife and I both really enjoy diverse cultures. We like to travel to places where things are very different, even though it’s difficult because of language; we like to visit Spanish speaking countries and European countries where other languages are spoken. It’s been nice to be in Nepal. Keshav: Before coming to Nepal, more particularly to TU, you certainly would have some expectations. After working here and teaching here for more than six months, you have gained some experiences. How different have been your expectations and experiences, I mean your feelings before coming here and after being here?
Prof. Bauerle: I think that they are fairly close… I could tell form the information gathered that there’d be certain facilities available and some that would not be … many not available. I learned the structure of curriculum; so. I knew how that differed from what I was used to. But I did not know about the abilities of the student, I did not know about the professional activities of the faculties. So there were some surprises in terms of those aspects — like that I had not concept that TU as a place… No, I had a concept that was totally wrong: TU as a pastoral type… shade in the open spaces…, which was totally different as I expected. So, I was certainly not shocked or recoiled or overwhelmed or anything. I think I had a reasonable assessment. When I arrived, I did not think “O my god!” This is so different from I expected.
Keshav: After interacting with many Nepali students and teachers for this period of time, you may have measured their heart-beat. What would you say about their academic standard?
Prof. Bauerle: I think that one of the different things to understand is the structure of education in Nepal because it is so diverse even from the lower level to the university level. It took me a long time to completely understand how the whole things work. MSc students that I have met are like in the distributions like in the groups of students in the United States. There are some very bright, highly energetic students, and perhaps not, quite as low energetic…and very confident. I think that there are some —it seems like — who are studying only because there may not be anything else to do; its like taking filling time. So, that’s the way you find students every worth.
Keshav: What about teachers?
Prof. Bauerle: One thing that really surprised me is the problem of curriculum. Specific curriculum should be made available to them. And another is the number of part time teachers in the department which has been so high. The fact is that the part time teachers spent most of their time in several institutions. Sometimes, these institutions are competitors in terms of student body. I would say it’s like every where… dedicated, hardworking and very capable people both in the classroom listening as well as in the classroom talking.
Keshav: You might have noticed this kind of attitude among most of the people here — awaiting their things done by foreigners or the government or some other agencies. And TU has not been an exception. Many agencies including the World Bank have donated a lot of equipment and other things, for instance, to the CDM. Recently, you too have donated some equipment and books to it. However, you can see many equipment stashed away in different rooms in the department. Does this kind of things bode good news?
Prof. Bauerle: Well, it makes no sense to me to have these equipment stashed away and not being used. That’s frustrating for me if I actually see that. I think, the rationale often is something is going to disappear if it is out and not locked up. May be that’s true, and it’s not true. May be it’s happened in the past. But I think anything that I provided to the department I expect it to be utilised by the students. So I think that equipment is going be used so long as there are faculties who use that piece of equipment, familiar with it and know how to do with it. If there is an amino acid analyser sitting unused in order for it’s got used someone has to know how to operate it… like the PCR machine has been sitting for quite long… It’s the matter of someone saying: “Well, I am going to use it for teaching exercise or research.” Yes, I think one has to ask why, what are the reasons that there isn’t use of something? Is it because it’s broken? Is it because no body know how to use it? Is it because nobody is doing anything that’ll require it? Why is it here and why it’s not been used? Has it ever been used? Things like this. You can go to almost any university and you can find some that has been inadequate, displaced by some other kind of equipment. This instrument here (The Amino Acid Analyser donated by the World Bank, which has never been used since it arrived in the CDM, became a close inanimate friend of Prof. Baurele in terms that the equipment had been salted away for years in the room that happened to be his office! —The Interviewer) is not a contemporary instrument and you will not do amino acid analysis anywhere with it. You would not find this kind of instrument functioning in too many places.Keshav: You mean it’s been old-fashioned.
Prof. Bauerle: Yes. It probably is usable. But it’s been suppressed by many designs. Many old instrumentations can be still used quite effectively.
Keshav: To excel in the field of science, what can scientists from the third world countries like Nepal do?
Prof. Bauerle: That’s pretty broad. But I think that there it is possible to do in some kinds of science, and not others: just because of the infrastructures required. My feeling after being here for this short time is that the aspiration to have world class research centres in Nepal is something part of the future because resources are just unavailable. However, it does not mean that Nepali scientists cannot be involved in that kind of research activities. First, it has to be true collaborative effort where high cost technology is available. The globe is shrinking. So research centres in Europe are not that far. Further, projects could be generated which address issues that are very Nepali and advantage the very Nepali people. There are opportunities of analysing organisms from high altitudes as the part of adaptive biology study, and this could be done at the molecular level. So it’s clear that there may be great research centres with core molecular biology level laboratories, for instance, in the area of adaptive biology appearing in Nepal anytime soon. However, there are many other things to get addressed. And I think, for instance, spending money on the development work and providing pure drinking water to the people is more important than buying a mass-spectrometer for some scientists.
Keshav: Cannot these things go side by side? Prof. Bauerle: It seems to be right now that it would not be the wisest use of common sense. You know, one can carp why a high official and the government require a Jaguar car for transportation when it’s just easy to get around with the Suzuki. If there is scientist who has good ideas, he should be provided with all sort of support. These are both moral and political decisions that must be made. I really feel that there are international centres that are very accessible and that it is possible to actually achieve these expectations. Nepal is not only a country that has many poor people, it is also struggling with its abilities. It’s very interesting, what it’s going to be in future, which makes it really difficult. It’s the diversion to the political problems. It takes energy and time… away from the types of things which move the country forward. If I were a Nepali living here, it would be very difficult to think about the future and to wonder where the country will be in one year or in ten years. But I think your part is well-taken, it’s not good everything is to be give because one becomes unable to … (be independent) … one becomes expectant.Keshav: As the Chinese proverb “Instead of giving a person fish, teach him to fish!”
Prof. Bauerle: Yes, give a person string and hook, not fish.Keshav: In this age of information technology, what can we expect in the field of biological science?
Prof. Bauerle: We’ve already have an explosion of effective information technology in the last 10 years. The genome project is a perfect example for the management of information; IT is absolutely essential for the analysis and interpretation of data. In my collaborative research in structural biology, the work could not be done without computers. Well, one can solve a protein structure or simple mRNA in matter of weeks, if it’s done by what is called molecular replacement. When my colleague at the university of Robert Koch began when he was student, models were built by hand, but stick symbols were used to get the three dimensional perspective. Now computers are used. As more and more analyses of biological systems are made —particularly of protein —keeping thing being able to record to information required this technology; its fast. Definitely, we’ve gone through some very large reaps. Right now we are reaping the genome project. We are going to reap its benefits for sometime. Nanotechnology is a very large, newly emerged phenomenon and where things at the nano-level reactions, chemistries, physical relationships are able to be proved at the 10ˉˉ9 level. This is already on its way. Keshav: Though the US government appears to be against the stem cell research and human cloning, what do you think: Should such sort of research be supported, or stopped?
Prof Bauerle: I think it’s no question, it should be supported. What’s driving the decision in the Bush administration is not science but it’s actually a politics and its religious conviction which has become closest tie of politics in the United States. President Bush has made it quite clear —he essentially has said— that there are enough cell lines already existing to do the research. This is clearly erroneous. Scientists advised him, after the fact, that there really were no may cell line. I understand that there’s been some slight softening to the position perhaps to the government. It’s a controversial issue; the people who focus on it are divided. Most of the people don’t really know what it is. But Ronald Reagan’s widow who comes form thee same party campaigns very strongly for the embryonic stem cell research. So, I see it as a political issue. Presently, no federal research funds coming from the federal agencies can be used in this research; it does not restrict private institutions that are using private funds for research. There is research going on in private companies because there could be a great financial windfall that could come from the application of embryonic stem cells. It’s only you cannot get the NIH grants to support stem cell until the presidential block is removed.
Keshav: One hypothetical question, if you were cloned, what would you call the carbon copies of yours? Brother, son or something else?
Prof Bauerle: You call them your brother or son because brother or son by definition is something different. I guess you can call them Me-one, Me-two, Me-three. I am very much against this concept, of course. Keshav: I asked the question because many ethical questions are floating against the issue.
Prof Bauerle: Well, I think the most people oppose the cloning of human being. Very few people say that it’s a good idea. However, one can strongly argue that cloning animals for … livestock or something is justifiable or can be justified if you are talking about making identical copies as individuals. So it’s clearly very controversial. Apropos to cloning human beings, all countries where cloning experiments are carried out say that it should not be done. But who might be doing so in private situation might not fall into it.Embryonic stem cell research basically comes down to the issue of the source of the material, which comes down to the issue of abortion that is one of the very big dividing issues in the United States although most of the people in the United States — the majority — are supporter of having elective abortion.Keshav: Is brain drain a problem?
Prof Bauerle: Well, it’s a big problem for Nepal. And it’s something very prevalent worldwide. For some countries, it’s a bigger problem. It’s a bigger problem for Nepal, and it’s for China after India. Just because of mass, people and where these countries are right now. Probably, it will start reversing because as countries like India and China developed their own new opportunities which make it much more attractive to stay in the very countries as was before. I think that Nepal needs a new generation of leaders and they are all going to western countries, saying that there is no future here and abandoning their country.
Keshav: What about profession-switching then? Isn’t it a problem?
Prof Bauerle: No, I don’t see profession switching as a problem.
Keshav: Even if capable scientists and other skilled persons give up their profession and start doing something unusual, for instance, selling flesh?
Prof Bauerle: Oh sure… When you switch, there are two things: What you are from and what you are switching to. And what you are switching to is something more important. If you are switching to something stupid, that is obviously a problem. But if a person wants to do that, for whatever reason, I don’t feel that like I can say you cannot do that. So, freewill, independent democratic role… In the United States one can become president, one can become a governor. Arnold Schwarzenegger is a weightlifter, a competitive bodybuilder. Now, he is the governor of California. Probably, he could be the president of the United States. Keshav: Provided the constitution is amended!
Prof Bauerle: That’s right. He wasn’t borne in America, he was borne in Austria. But I think that as long as someone is responsible and not harming people there is no reason why they should be prevented from something other than what they have been doing.
Keshav: Lastly, do you have any message to your students?
Prof Bauerle: I would say stay very much informed about what’s happening in your country, and be concerned about it. But don’t let it totally displace your intellectual activity. It’s not good to say that I’m not interested in what’s going to happen to the country. But you can get cut off from it ; and behind your intellectual grow, I think, you have to be concerned and you have to complement basic constitutional rights to the individuals. I don’t think these things as principles should be abandoned. And one cannot let things someone else to do because that’s implicating your responsibility as an individual. In democracy you have not only privileges and rights, but you also have responsibilities. But responsibilities are often forgotten. I don’t think that it’s responsible about only making a statement about rights. I don’t think it’s responsible to do criminal activity like damaging property. Such kind of activities just undermines the credibility. At the same time, the young people should study, pursue their goals, have a dream about what they want to accomplish and try to hold on to that — no matter how difficult it is. It’s very difficult to have a dream that you are working towards when perhaps you don’t know if you are going to have a job and be able to raise a family or feed yourself. But it’s still important.
Keshav: Cannot one put these things this way: Students should be politically conscious but they should not get involved in “dirty politics?”
Prof Bauerle: To say “Don’t get involved in politics” would not be honest. Instead of using the term “dirty politics,” I would say “selfish politics.” It’s very important to know what’s going on the country, in your locality. And with the democratic rights that one has, he or she should exercise these rights; besides, he or she should exercise responsibility as well. That means voting, that means supporting people who might emerge as real leaders. So it’s a different process to study while you are also keeping yourself aware. It’s so easy to say that I’m not going to worry about the politics. The future of the country lies with the young people, especially the young people who would be the next partisan of leaders. Country has to develop ew leader with new ideas and new modalities about how things ought to be done.
(This is the unedited version of the interview. Hope you will overlook the silly grammatical mistakes)