More Randy Alberte memories

Bill Dennison ·
19 February 2011

Just as Randy Alberte served to get the Alberte laboratory together in Chicago, his recent death has provided the impetus to get us together via the emails that we have exchanged recently. I think that he would have appreciated these enduring connections.

Randy snorkelling
Randy Alberte snorkeling over Bill Dennison's seagrass research site

A major factor in my decision to come to The University of Chicago was the cohort of Alberte graduate students, as well as the students in other lab groups. I loved the different and exciting things people were doing. Our TGIF seminars ranged from student projects in the tropical rain forests of Panama, studying baboon behavior in Africa, pollination in the prairie grasslands, frogs in the Indiana Dunes, and seagrasses in Woods Hole.  There were several other faculty in the Barnes Laboratory including Jim Tiere, Doug Schemske, and Laurie Metz who had an open door policy for graduate students. One of my favorite activities was talking with George Beadle, Nobel Laureate (one gene=one enzyme) who had retired from his stellar academic career (including a stint as President of The University of Chicago). Professor Beadle was in the greenhouse every day looking after his corn plants that he was selectively breeding to investigate the mystery of the origin of this highly domesticated plant.  When he retired from his retirement, he gave us jars of teosente seeds to use as popcorn—part of his theory of the native Americans use of teosente was to pop it in the campfire.

Barnes laboratory greenhouses
Greenhouses attached to Barnes Laboratory, University of Chicago, where Professor George Beadle conducted his studies on the origin of corn.

Former students and colleagues of Randy said some very nice things about him, and I want to share some of the snippets and thoughtful words more widely. Charlie Fenster said "I only had good interactions with him and looking back, it is amazing that so many talented and nice people were mentored by him." Barbara Prezilin said that ". . . we went our own ways many years ago, but [I] have very fond graduate school memories." Josie Aller said "So sad. . . lots of fond memories. All we can do is toast Randy." Bob Aller wrote "I will never forget the great times scientifically and socially with Randy in Chicago. He was an unusual and good man." Elizabeth Vierling said "Very sad. People are always asking me if I know what happened to him . . .".  Colleen Cavanaugh said "I gave a seminar, invited by Randy, and he did the tour of all of Chicago and of the university. Amazing, the things he knew and the oh-so-Randy presentation. Easily could have been a second career for him." Mimi Koehl said "I talked with Dick [Zimmerman] and Robert [Smith] the day Randy died – I am so glad that Robert and Dick were with him. Like you, I have been doing a lot of reminiscing about Randy during happier times long ago." Bill Thomas and his wife Celia Smith wrote to say "[We] have been long time friends of Randy . . . many, many memories of someone we'll miss greatly. Randy was one of the most generous individuals I've ever met—witty, smart, opinionated and very much loved by our family. 'Uncle Randy', as our boys call him, will be sorely missed by all of us." Lissy Coley wrote "I have many fond memories of him—game hen dinners he cooked and would bring to us in the lab, disco dancing, him trying to spruce up Tom's [Kursar] wardrobe. George Kraemer wrote "What I remember about Randy was the impish smile that was often on his face. Yes, I know Randy could be as irascible as the next person, but that seemed to be reserved only for those who'd insulted his sense of good science. I know that many of you would second me when I say that I wouldn't be where I am today were it not for the hand of Randy. I wonder if he ever realized the number of lives he touched." Jim Marsh wrote that "Your positive comments about Randy reminded me of how much I enjoyed our interactions in 1983, . . . which I still appreciate when those fond memories flash back." Tom Kursar wrote "Barnes Lab and Woods Hole and our trip to Greece and Italy—Ischia, Rome, Firenze seem like yesterday. . . I had been thinking of Randy because he hounded us to think about the big picture, why anyone else would care—he taught me that. . . . Randy used to force us to leave the lab to have dinner at his place, or bring dinner into the lab. Who ever hears of such things? . . . I spent two very formative summers at Woods Hole thanks to Randy. . . I guess the bottom line is that he changed my life."

Students river trip
Several University of Chicago graduate students on a river rafting trip down the San Juan River; Lissy Coley and Tom Kursar (far left), Bill Dennison (far right) and Elizabeth Vierling (middle, top row)

Reading these tributes leads me to the conclusion that Randy's legacy is the people that he touched. While he was not one to maintain his relationships, his impact on his students and colleagues could be profound and lasting.

About the author

Bill Dennison

Dr. Bill Dennison is a Professor of Marine Science and Vice President for Science Application at the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science (UMCES). Dr. Dennison’s primary mission within UMCES is to coordinate the Integration and Application Network.

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