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ASU's Barbara Wold to receive SOLS alumni award

November 10, 2010

Barbara Wold’s first glimpse at her future as a scientist with California Institute of Technology (Caltech) came in the form of salamanders and frogs. Models for studying developmental biology for her undergraduate research at Arizona State University in 1971, these amphibians were harbingers of access to tools to build the adventure of a lifetime.

Now, almost 40 years later, Wold is the director of the Beckman Institute and Bren Professor of Molecular Biology at Caltech. She is returning to ASU to accept the School of Life Sciences Distinguished Alumni Award for her technological innovations and discoveries in molecular genetics, genomics and regulation of cell fate.

“Dr. Wold is an excellent example of how undergraduates getting involved in research can lead to lifelong passion for science and a productive career,” said Jeffrey Alan Rawls, who nominated Wold for the award. Rawls is associate vice provost of clinical partnerships and associate professor in the School of Life Sciences in ASU’s College of Liberal Arts and Sciences.

Wold, who graduated from ASU in 1973 with a bachelor’s degree in zoology, agrees that it was her undergraduate research studies with zoology professors Shelby Gerking, who studied desert pupfish, and Jerry Justus, a developmental biologist, that gave her new insights and advantages to empower her career.

“The most important thing I received at ASU was the opportunity to work in two different research labs doing real science,” Wold said. “I learned about how to work out a new technique, and about why precision matters. I also learned how different the pursuit of new knowledge is from learning facts that others have already found and tested.”

“It is the learning of the new that is hard and exciting, and addicting,” Wold added.

ASU had much to offer in the areas that Wold valued as an undergraduate, including architecture, journalism and biology. She remembers a particularly inspiring genetics class she took with Kathleen Church, Professor Emerita of zoology and former vice provost of academic affairs. “She gave wonderful lectures, in addition to running her research program. I vividly recall her telling the story about how Seymour Benzer, a former physicist considered one of the giants of modern genetics, had used genetics to define a gene. It was so elegant, and she let us know it took years to complete.

“It’s important to appreciate that discovery is often a lengthy process, requiring much persistence,” Wold emphasized. Later in life, she came to know Benzer, the Boswell Professor of Neuroscience at Caltech, first as a teacher and then as a colleague.

“I am forever grateful to Drs. Gerking and Justus for opening their lab doors to let me become a very junior member of their team,” said Wold.

One of the most important discoveries that Wold made at ASU was in fact the people.

“I made lifelong friends in the residence hall. Most of whom were not in science,” Wold says. “Had I gone to a specialty science school instead, I would not have this great window on the world that my friends from ASU provide.”

Wold also met her husband at ASU, Larry Burdick, a geophysicist. They were part of a group who worked at the Legend City Amusement Park to help pay for school. “A fabulous group of people,” Wold said, some who went on to play roles in the management of Motorola, others who became airline pilots, lawyers, teachers, realtors and builders, even an Air Force general. “This was perhaps the greatest and lasting legacy of my time at ASU.”

Another legacy that ASU offered was a compelling problem to solve early on in Wold’s undergraduate research experience: How to decipher the informational code behind regulated gene expression.

The regulatory information in the DNA that interests her “governs how each one of our 25,000 genes is programmed for expression in the correct amount, in the right cell types, and tuned to respond to internal and external environmental cues,” she said.

Wold points out that this regulatory code is also central to modern medicine, since more than half of variation associated with disease states maps to regions of likely regulatory function. Wold will talk about innovation, discovery and the surprises in her research on Friday at 2 p.m. in Life Sciences Building, E-wing, Room 104. Her talk is titled “Genome-wide analysis of transcription networks: principles and mysteries from fruit fly, worm and human systems.”

“Wold has been at the forefront of developing new ways to quantitatively map the inputs and outputs of gene networks in a genome-wide manner using ‘next generation’ ultra-high throughput DNA sequencing, and applying these methods to muscle and brain networks,” Rawls said.

Wold’s advice to up-and-coming young scientists: “Get in and try your hand doing the science. Ask yourself: Do you love the quest? Does even a small clear discovery, or figuring our why your experiment failed make your heart race?”

“If the answer is yes, you have found a wonderful passion that will likely last a lifetime,” Wold said. “It will carry you through the tribulations of finding funding for your work, the rigors of the job hunt, the dark periods when nothing seems to be working. It will do this because making a new discovery and telling others who care about the problem something that is both new and true is so much fun,” she said.

“And if you do it well and long, you can hope that some of those discoveries will have wide impact on how we understand nature and how we solve problems of human health.”