The customary beginning — I was born just outside of New York City on November 7, 1948. My mother and father have both passed away. I can feel their pride and likely stunned disbelief about the Shaw Prize. The first relevant moment for this short story came around age 15. By then my family had moved first to San Francisco and then Seattle. I was a disengaged student with no academic interests. My biology teacher announced an optional overnight fieldtrip to the Pacific Coast; something about tide pools. Signing up meant escaping Friday classes. Off I went with the class “smart kids”. Exploring the tide pools was life changing. The creatures I could find by turning over a rock were fascinating in their form and function. Over that weekend biology became my life long passion.
After floating the rest of the way through high school, engaged much more in my rock and roll band than in academics, except for biology, I eventually went to college. Upon careful consideration I decided that the University of Washington, my hometown university and my current employer, was too big. I opted to attend the smaller Western Washington University where I graduated in 1970. My decision was sound. Entering college I was focused on marine invertebrates. As a small liberal arts college Western offered a degree in general biology and I obtained a very broad background in the subject including my introduction to microbiology during my final year.
I once again was thinking of attending the University of Washington as a graduate student in biochemistry, but at the 11th hour I decided to follow what had become my passion – the microbial world. This led to a last minute switch to the University of Iowa where in 1972 I obtained a MS in Microbiology, and then on to the University of Massachusetts where I could work on marine bacteria with my PhD mentor the late Ercole Canale-Parola who sent me to Woods Hole summer microbiology course. This was yet another life-changing experience. There I learned from the late JW Hastings, Ken Nealson and Anatol Eberhard about how luminescent marine bacteria make light in response to something they produce themselves. I also came under the spell of EO Wilson the famous social ant biologist. To me it seemed like the luminescent bacteria were using chemical signals to communicate and coordinate light production, an expensive collective behavior. This was a social activity.
I received my PhD in 1977 and then moved to a postdoctoral with Hastings at Harvard. It was during my postdoctoral that a romance began with my wife of now 31 years, Carrie Harwood, a microbiologist herself. I moved to the Cornell Microbiology faculty in 1979, and Carrie to Yale shortly thereafter. The romance survived separation, we married in 1984 and she moved to Ithaca. I continued to build a head of steam on what was then called autoinduction of bacterial luminescence. In 1986 Barbara, our first-born arrived, another life-changing experience but more difficult than anticipated. Barbara lives with the genetic disease cystic fibrosis. This reality prompted us to consider moving from Cornell, a place I love and where I thrived, to a microbiology programme at a major medical school.
After considering our options it was back to the University of Iowa in 1989. Carrie was the first woman faculty member ever in the Department of Microbiology – arriving eight months pregnant with our soon-to-be son Ted. I am sure some of our new colleagues were wondering about us. Barbara received world-class medical care and our careers advanced. I became involved in the cystic fibrosis “community” in many ways but not in my own research until colleagues working on the virulence of Pseudomonas, the most common pathogen in the lungs of people with cystic fibrosis, discovered genes like the genes controlling light production in my marine bacteria. These colleagues did not know about bacterial communication. As one of the very few “experts” on this regulatory mechanism I had to wade in and work on Pseudomonas, which became a major focus of my team. My fascination with microbes, and basic rather than applied research approach had taken an interesting and personal twist. This was an exciting time – the early 1990’s. Our luminescent bacteria were teaching us things well beyond what was anticipated. In 1994 Clay Fuqua, Steve Winans and I introduced the term quorum sensing and response to the scientific world. Quorum sensing controls virulence in Pseudomonas and many other pathogens. Life in a small scientific discipline populated by me, my co-awardee Bonnie Bassler and a few others changed to become a large, active, competitive area of research.
For several reasons in 2005 it was time to move home to Seattle, and finally to the University of Washington where I am now a Professor of Microbiology. As is customary, I will add information about other honors. I am an elected Fellow of the US National Academy of Sciences, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the American Academy of Microbiology. I am a recipient of the American Society for Microbiology DC White Award for excellence in research and mentoring among other honors.
I am honored, humbled and surprised that the work of my students and colleagues has been recognized with the Shaw Prize. In particular, my inquisitive and open-minded students and also my colleagues, have made our corner of the scientific world both interesting and important.
24 September 2015 Hong Kong