Bruce M. Anderson: Head of the Department of Biochemistry and Nutrition, 1970-1981
Date of Interview: February 7, 2002
Location: Sound booth, Media Building, Virginia Tech, Blacksburg, Virginia
Interviewee: Bruce M. Anderson
Interviewer: Thomas O. Sitz
Transcriber: Sheila M. Early
Thomas Sitz: What were some of the biggest challenges? You were here for about 10 years as department head.
Bruce Anderson: Well, like I said, one of the challenges, I guess, that bothered me the most was this problem of trying to relocate people in the building that were not in the Department of Biochemistry and Nutrition. People that were going to have to be transferred back to other departments were not too happy with this in the beginning, although they finally ended up probably with better facilities than they had in the biochem building.
Sitz: People tend to be very territorial when they have a lab.
Anderson: Right, exactly. But as the department was expanding and we were getting more faculty positions, it was necessary to have the space for these people. In order to recruit the people, you needed to have laboratory space in order to get them to come into the department. So that was a major challenge. And also, I guess, I got there just at a time when the undergraduate program was initiated.
Sitz: It had been started, I guess in, maybe in 1966 or 1967; they were just starting to get people in. I remember Al Merrill; he was an undergraduate. We were active in some of the anti-war demonstrations that were going on at the time. Which I guess you caught the tail end of that when you came in.
Anderson: Yes, I had to go through that at Tennessee before I came up here, and it was still going on here at Virginia Tech at the time. It was not a very nice situation, but everybody got through it with no problems.
So on to the development of the undergraduate program. I taught in the undergraduate lecture series for a number of years. In fact, we had quite a number of students in that course. I taught the 4000-level biochemistry course in two sections, at 8 and 11 and we had something like 250 students in the course at that time.
We had students from home economics who were not equipped to handle biochemistry in any way. I always remember one women who was forced to take biochemistry from the home economics department coming into my office and saying, "Dr. Anderson, I don't understand. This past week you were talking about proteins, and then you said something about protons. Are they the same thing?"
Sitz: A little bit of difference in size there.
Anderson: So that was the basis of this person's background for handling biochemistry. It was quite a challenge to teach that type of course.
Sitz: Of course, I guess, the undergraduate enrollment in the seventies had probably got up close to 400 students. Currently running about 330 - 340.
Anderson: That's true. And then things started to level off when some of the other departments withdrew some of their students from that course because it was just too much for their background to handle, and we had other courses set up for biochemistry for non-majors. And also, I feel another achievement was the establishment of Physical Chemistry for Life Science. At that time, working with Neal Boyd, who was assistant dean, was very helpful since his background was physical chemistry anyhow. Neal and I convinced the Chemistry Department to set up a new course that would be physical chemistry for biochemists. And we were very fortunate in having Jim Wightman, an excellent teacher in chemistry. At least he recognized that there was a real need and developed a course from the word go. We were very fortunate in having someone like Jim to work with us on that.
Sitz: This may be Jim's last year. He has retired but was still doing part-time teaching. That's become a popular course for them because they have two sections they teach. The B.A. chemists take that course, and they pick up some biology students.
Anderson: Right. As I said I stepped down from the headship in late 1981 or early 1982 somewhere around there.
Sitz: Is there anything in particular you want to point out? You were in there for about 10 years, which is a fairly long period for a department head.
Anderson: Right, I think you get to the point of diminishing returns. There's only so much aggravation you can put on the dean, and, you know, one of your responsibilities is trying to convince the dean of the importance of biochemistry and their programs and the need for funding for laboratory space, equipment, positions, and everything like that.
After a while you get a little bit discouraged by continually hounding the dean for these needs, and you feel like you aggravated him enough that maybe somebody new coming in would be able to accomplish more than you were able to do at that point and time, so that was one of reasons that I decided it was time to step down and let somebody else take over and see if they could convince the dean to do more for the department. That was one of my reasons for doing that. So I just stepped down and became a professor in the department and remained in teaching and research area up until 1998. I retired in January '98.
Sitz: I know when I came back to Virginia Tech in '82 I think Keenan had come in as department head, and he'd been there about six months or so.
Anderson: Right, so that basically covers my career as a biochemist, and my areas of research basically dealt with enzymology. I think in looking at some of the things we accomplished during our studies of the pyridine nucleotides and what not we really published studies on 30 different enzymes systems, and of those 30 enzymes, 12 were actually purified to electrophoretic homogeneity in my laboratory. That is quite a number of enzyme systems.
Sitz: You certainly made a major contribution in that area. I know you also trained a lot of students. Of course, I remember Jimmy Yuan, who I first met when he got his degree from the University of Tennessee. I guess he finished up with you when you came to Tech.
Anderson: That's right, he got his Ph.D. with me at Tennessee and then spent a year in my lab and also participated in a program we had in the Philippines. A university in the Philippines was doing some research involving one of their faculty who spoke Japanese, and they really couldn't understand what the man was doing, so they wanted somebody from our department that could possibly speak English and Japanese to join them for a year or two and see if he could make some sense of what this man was doing.
Dr. Yuan, who happened to be capable of doing that, went to the Philippines to work with them on that. And over the time period of my academic career, I had fourteen Ph.D.'s that came out of my laboratory, and quite a number of them are full professors at other major universities at this point in time. Some of them are in other countries-Uruguay, Korea, Thailand, places like that, working in universities around the world. So I'm very proud of those 14 Ph.D.'s and the work that they did. They were all excellent students.
I had three master's students that worked in my laboratory at different times. One of them took a master's and then became a M.D. later on, and a couple of senior honor thesis students worked in our laboratory. Dr. Paul Waymack is nationally/internationally known in his work with burn patients. Kevin Beyer, a more recent student who's an M.D., is practicing emergency medicine at Cincinnati now, is doing very well.
We had six postdoctoral fellows who worked in our laboratory over this time period. Five visiting professors came to work in our laboratory, so we had quite an interesting group of people that came through our laboratory at different times. Over that time period, we published 113 major research publications in major journals. We actually put together a book on pyridine nucleotide chemistry and contributed chapters to other books concerning pyridine nucleotides, as well. We accomplished a lot in the time period that I was a research/teaching faculty member in biochemistry.
Sitz: Yes, we remember some of those students. That pretty well covers most of it. Is there anything you want to add? I'm just trying to think of anything.
Anderson: No, I don't think so. That pretty much covers the time period. It's been a long time, and I just recently decided I would put together a document on the entire academic career before I forgot who was where, when, and who did this and who did that, so I've been busy trying to do that. Also, I should mention my wife, Connie Anderson, had worked with me in the laboratory. Of the 113 publications we have, she is probably a co-author on at least 50 of them. As well, she has worked with people like Mary Ellen Jones at Brandeis, different other faculty around the different places we've been.
Sitz: Didn't she work in chemistry for a while?
Anderson: When we came here, because of the nepotism laws or one thing or another, she was not allowed to work in biochemistry. She had been working with me in my laboratory at Tennessee, and we had arranged to have her do that. But coming here, being head of the department, it was not proper for her to work in biochemistry, so she worked in chemistry with Dr. Phil Hall. They were working on some proteolytic enzymes systems, with papain and ficin and things like that. Of course, Connie had already had a lot of experience since we had done some similar work in our laboratories.
So she worked in the Department of Chemistry then until I stepped down from the headship. It was permissible at that time for her to join my laboratory in the biochemistry department. She worked then again through that time period from '81 to '98 in my laboratory and was supported off NSF (National Science Foundation) grant money that we had. She was on a "soft" position for all that time. She also retired at the same time that I did.
Sitz: That worked out well. She's been staying very busy.
Anderson: Yes, that worked out well. She was a real help in working with the graduate students that came in. She had wonderful experience in analytical techniques, spectrophotometry, and organic synthesis that we did.
Sitz: I also know she did editorial work on other faculty members' grants and also publications. I know she's worked a lot with Dr. Bob White and some of his publications.
Anderson: Yes, she continued to do that after we retired for a couple of years. She was editing all of Bob's papers and chapters and things of that sort. She kept pretty busy doing that.
She was a big help. Even graduate students not in my lab got her to help with their thesis preparation and things of that sort. She did a lot of that sort of thing that probably I guess not too many people realize what she had done for the department. And she was a mother figure for some of the graduate students that were away from home and found somebody that would listen to their problems. That was always a help too. In fact, I just, this past year, visited in Birmingham, Alabama with a student of mine that graduated with a Ph.D. at Tennessee. I don't know that he would have stayed in school without his interactions with Connie. She kept him on the straight and narrow. She contributed a lot to my career in biochemistry over the years in many different ways. I should mention that too. That's about it!
Sitz: Well, I guess this will bring the interview to a close. Thanks.
End of interview.
VT History Digital Library and Archives Special Collections University Archives Send questions or comments to:
Tamara Kennelly, University Archivist, University Libraries
Virginia Tech, P.O. Box 90001, Blacksburg, VA 24062-9001
Last Updated on: Tuesday, 08-Apr-2003 16:00:38 EDT by Mark B. Gerus
Original page design by Mark B. Gerus