Remembering Randy Alberte

Bill Dennison ·
5 October 2010

Randy and Bill

Dr. Dick Zimmerman, my colleague at Old Dominion University, informed me today that Randy Alberte had passed away as a result of a long bout with cancer. Randy was my PhD advisor at The University of Chicago and Randy provided me the unique opportunity to pursue my interests in photosynthesis, marine biology and science in a wonderful laboratory at a great university conducting my research in one of my favorite places on the planet, Woods Hole, Massachusetts. I first met Randy following a talk at an American Society of Limnology and Oceanography meeting in Los Angeles in 1980. The talk was by Dr Barbara Prezelin on photosynthesis of dinoflagellates and talking with her and Randy following her seminar, I was really taken by the concept of the photosynthetic unit (a reaction center surrounded by light harvesting pigments that funneled light energy into the reaction center which converted it to chemical energy). I told Randy that I was interested in pursuing a PhD following my Master's degree from the University of Alaska on seagrasses and he invited me to visit his research group at Barnes Laboratory, The University of Chicago. On that visit a few months later, I was impressed with the graduate students in the Alberte lab and indeed, they became my graduate student cohort.

Barnes Lab

After visiting the Alberte lab, I returned to Alaska to run a research boat in the Beaufort Sea, but Randy maintained an active and stimulating correspondence via handwritten letters. By the end of the year, I was ready to leave Alaska and Randy enabled me to make a snap decision to begin my PhD mid-year (January 1981). The first six months of my PhD were the most difficult period of my life; challenging courses, a major culture shock of moving to an urban setting from an Alaskan wilderness, an automobile accident, the unexpected death of my mother, and the challenge of learning to think critically. Randy was very supportive and incredibly generous with his time and his 'things'--he lent me his television when I was bedridden with the flu, for example. Then Randy took me to Woods Hole for the summer and I began living my dream of SCUBA diving for research, meeting incredibly bright and interesting scientists, immersing myself literally and figuratively in marine science and I was hooked for life. I returned to Woods Hole every year of my thesis and with this connection to the sea, I was able to adjust to life in Chicago and learned to love the city and the intellectual life at The University of Chicago. Randy provided this wonderful life opportunity and I have never regretted my decision to come to Chicago.

Following my PhD with Randy, I pursued an academic career and there are several things important life lessons that I learned from Randy about running a laboratory and fostering good research. Randy spent quality time with his graduate students at the beginning (proposal writing) and at the end (thesis writing) of their tenure, and knew to facilitate without impeding the active research phase. He was a ‘data monger'; he would collect large amounts of data with adequate replication to produce publishable results. Randy always had publication as a goal. Randy pooled the laboratory resources and used them strategically to maximize the total benefit to the group—I have employed this principle throughout my career. He fostered camaraderie within the graduate student cohort, and this has provided friends and colleagues for life. Randy insisted on clear writing, with multiple edits and many drafts (when I asked him what his language requirements were for a PhD, he responded, "English, both written and spoken"), something my students and colleagues have also experienced from me. Randy had wide-ranging interests and was never reticent to ask research questions of new topics or groups of organisms, and this breadth is something that I have emulated in my career.

Randy was a complex man, and we had a complex relationship. The mentor/student relationship in graduate school is by nature intense, and the four years I spent as Randy's student helped shape my career, for better or worse. By the end of my PhD, Randy and I did not get along, yet we continued to collaborate on my thesis papers as I began a postdoctoral fellowship. Randy did not stay at The University of Chicago long after I finished and he proceeded to develop a unique and varied career. Several years after I graduated, I hosted Randy for a seminar in my present institution, University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science, and he remarked that I seemed happy with a set of good colleagues who respected me, indicating that this was as good as one could aspire for in your professional life. We had scheduled a dinner later in the year and I was forced to cancel when I learned that I was interviewing for a job in Australia, which turned into a decade long adventure. I never saw Randy in person again, as our paths did not converge, although I would hear of his whereabouts via colleagues.

Randy's untimely death saddens me. I always expected to have another long dinner with him, comparing notes on our different career paths, sharing gossip about our former Chicago colleagues, toasting our mutual friend and colleague Lucia Mazzella, who also had an untimely death in 1999, and, of course, talking about our shared love of plants that live in the sea.

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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  • Hans Dam 12 years ago

    Nice remembrance, Bill.
    It's good you took the time to recognize your advisor.

  • Barbara Duke Guinn 10 years ago

    I so appreciate you comments regarding Randy Alberte. I did not know that he died until I stumbled upon your post. My first husband, Dr. Stephen O. Duke, and I had the privilege of knowing Randy as a doctoral student at Duke University in Durham, NC from 1970-1975. I was not a student, only the wife of one, but I was always taken with Randy because he was such a decent guy, and a good friend. He made the most wonderful food--best salads ever--and he allowed me to occasionally suggest spices for some of his dishes. He was a consumate host and a good listener. I miss him.

  • Elma Gonzalez 4 years ago

    Thank you for your comments regarding Randy Alberte. I don't know what made me search for Randy on the Web today as I had not heard from him or of him since he went to Florida. Randy was a complex man of many talents. He certainly was a great cook and a great mentor. He was also a gardener and had tested roses while still a high school student in New Jersey and apparently played the cello for a NJ orchestra. He had a great influence on me and encouraged me to work on the cell biology of the coccolithophores. I really enjoyed his range of interests and intelligent conversations and I'm sorry he is gone.

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