Fifty-Year Celebration of the Department of Biochemistry
University Archives / University Libraries / Department of Biochemistry

Interview by Warren H. Strother - Context, Vol. 10, No. 2, Winter 1976

Kendall King left Virginia Tech in 1968 to go to New York with mixed emotions. The experience with Bell, Engel, and others in digging into the practical applications of science to real-life problems, plus the Haitian project-where real-life problems literally were those of life or death-had markedly changed King's academic orientation. "When you get to graduate school in biochemistry," he said, "you soon learn that only basic biochemistry is respectable, that when you take biochemistry and use it to attack practical problems you have dropped down a notch or two in respectability.

"Well, after five or six years of seeing men like Bell and Engel work so effectively at both levels, and after seeing the terrible difficulty of solving some of the field problems, most of what I had been taught in classical science simply had to be thrown out of the window. When I went to Haiti and had the opportunity to see the unbelievable conditions in which children were dying of malnutrition, it really was a shock. So I realized that I really didn't know how biochemistry could be brought to bear on such a situation; but, by golly, I knew I was going to try something.

"I didn't, by any means, drop everything else I was doing, but Engel encouraged me to see what could be done. Just like everybody else, we simply worked 150 percent time. What to do in Haiti evolved very slowly; that is very clear as I look back on it now. It was necessary to do slow, painstaking research, and at the same time we had to develop some kind of different extension approach so that we could get the results of the biochemical research into practical use. We really didn't know whether we were on the right track until 1966 or 1967. Indeed it was not until last August (1974) that the really hard, convincing data came in. That was a long time.

"And I had lots of help. Engel never complained about the time I put into the project. And almost every one of my graduate students, even those who were working in classical biochemistry, went to Haiti for three or four months to help out with various phases of the work. Looking back, I'm certain that the project had a major influence on the career goals of at least half of my graduate students. The realities of the Haitian experience added a whole new dimension to biochemistry for all of us. It wasn't simply talking about enzymes and hormones and all that, but also grasping what biochemical knowledge means in terms of a world where most kids die of malnutrition. This kind of thing takes a cold and sterile science and makes it very human; it makes it challenging and important.

"Anyway," he continued, "by 1968 I began thinking that the bulk of whatever contribution I could make at Virginia Tech had been made, and other opportunities were presenting themselves. One very strong motivating factor was the opportunity to participate in the leadership of the largest program supporting practical attacks on malnutrition in this hemisphere. The opportunity to get involved with that kind of thing just had to be a big temptation. Also it gave me the chance to work in the other programs of Research Corporation, and I was convinced that all of the activities of the foundation are tremendously important to American science: chemistry, physics, mathematics, and a good many other sciences. So Research Corporation represented an opportunity to do things I could commit myself to which were as worthwhile as what I was able to do at Virginia Tech-in other ways, not, of course, for the two organizations make very different kinds of contributions.

"Looking back, I don't think it was a mistake. Yet as time goes by I have an increasing respect for what VPI contributes to Virginia, specifically, and to national academic circles generally. I would have expected that as the years went by I would have more or less forgotten about VPI and become less interested in the University as an institution. I think this happens to people who leave land-grant universities much more than to those who leave places like Harvard, MIT, and other good private universities, because such institutions have responsibilities only to themselves plus whatever public service responsibilities they choose to undertake. But a land-grant university has very explicit responsibilities to the state which it serves. A land-grant school is the institutionalization of about the finest aspirations a state can have for its citizens, and if such a school is well managed, it can make a remarkable contribution. Certainly Virginia Tech, in the years that I have known it, has had very fine leadership and some first rate academicians-people who were superb in the classroom and who also were first rate investigators. It isn't too often that you find both in the same man or woman, but in Tech's faculty you find both in abundance."

King's responsibilities with Research Corporation's program of grants in support of basic science involve most of the colleges and universities in the nation. The Foundation's invention administration program also has agreements with over 250 colleges and universities, helping them develop embryonic inventions from their laboratories into useful products and processes. But one of the projects into which King has put a good deal of energy was a series of annual seminars for newly selected science department heads, largely from private colleges and undergraduate schools from public colleges and universities. His enthusiasm was apparent as he described the program:

"How do we select department heads in this country? We do it on the basis of superior performance as professors, as teachers. All of a sudden a good teacher is informed that he has been selected to head his department. What preparation does he have for the job? If the guy gets 45 minutes talking with his dean prior to assuming the headship he is lucky. So what happens? Most of them flounder. They make mistakes in the first year or two that the institution has to live with for 20 years. They hire a poor faculty member, or they lose a good one; they can sour a whole department with poor leadership.

"So we bring these people together with three or four superb established department heads for a week of free-wheeling discussion. We go into the role of the department head, and into some of the important things which make a good department head. Most of these people have taken the job with the clear understanding that they are becoming spokesmen for the faculty in confrontation with college administrations. Yet, typically, the college administration considers the department head as its front line lieutenant. What really has to happen is that, as a department head, one has to be an interpreter of the administration's policies and programs to the faculty, and he has to make sure that he fairly interprets the faculty's objectives and concerns to the administration. The department head really has to facilitate good communication both ways.

"These seminars really are wild affairs, but they are fun; our discussions get down to the nitty-gritty of how colleges and departments really operate. Now there's a new element, too, for over half of the public institutions in the United States are unionized. This has had a potent impact on the role of the department head, on evaluating teachers and researchers, and on recommendations for promotion. I think one of the hardest things young department heads have to come to recognize is that there is no one "right" style of leadership. They have to identify their own style; they have to identify ways of providing stimulating leadership and still be themselves. You have to work for good balance in a department so that each person in the department can use his strengths to make a maximum contribution. Not every professor can do everything well; you have to use each person's specific strengths and gain departmental balance by the team's balance. It never ceases to amaze me that young department heads have so hard a time recognizing this basic fact of academic life."

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