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The Era of Bruce


What do Rick Wilson, Elaine Mardis, Ellson Chen, and Akbar Khan have in common? Aside from their highly recognizable names in the genomics community, they share another common link: their PhD advisor, Bruce Roe.

If this field were to start its own six-degrees-of-separation game, you probably couldn’t beat choosing Roe as your central figure. Look closely enough at your own colleagues and contacts in the genomics world, and chances are good that you can build your own path to Roe in far fewer than six steps.

Part of that is due simply to tenure: the man, now director of the Advanced Center for Genome Technology at the University of Oklahoma, has been running a DNA-
focused lab or genome center since 1971. But another part stems from Roe’s enthusiasm for connecting people. Ellson Chen, who made his name as head of the Celera group when it was under the aegis of PE, was Roe’s first PhD student. Chen says that Roe is known among his legions of students, past and present, for his continual knack for helping them — from putting in a good word at a lab of interest to tracking down just the right industry contact for someone seeking a job. “He is a lifelong teacher,” Chen says.

He’s also a self-professed lifelong kid who says that the students who have streamed through his lab have “kept me 12 years old.” (In reality, Roe just turned 66 and will be retiring as a professor — but not as a lab head — at the end of this spring semester.)

Roe started his lab more than 36 years ago at Kent State University in Ohio, where his earliest focus in the emerging field of DNA and RNA research was on tRNA. Students came because it was a new and enticing field, and people working in it were few and far between, remembers Chen. “tRNA in those days was pretty hot,” he says. “He was the only one whose expertise was in the RNA/DNA area.”

It was another feather in Roe’s cap when he was invited to take a sabbatical in Fred Sanger’s MRC lab — and also characteristic of the young PI that he took Chen, then a postdoc, along for the ride. One of Roe’s goals has “always been to make opportunities” for his students, whether it’s taking them on a coveted sabbatical or to research-heavy conferences. At last year’s Plant and Animal Genome meeting, for instance, Roe’s entourage included some 15 students from his lab. “That’s important,” he says.

Throughout the community, scientists who have gone through the Roe lab are known in particular for their tech savvy. As the leader of a pioneering genome center, Roe has always enjoyed the latest tools — and students like Elaine Mardis, now co-director of the Washington University Genome Sequencing Center, have parlayed that intricate understanding of how instruments work (and how to make them work better) into leading roles at genome centers, universities, and industry.

Roe says that during a recent reunion of his lab alumni, past students still joked about his demands for ultra-high stringency in the controls they ran for every experiment. “I’m just trying to train people to do good basic science,” he says. “I have this hard work ethic and they bought into the hard work ethic,” he adds, referring to the many students who have emerged from his lab having accomplished far more than they expected at the outset.

While you can’t blame a PI for measuring success by papers published or patents earned, Roe’s own yardstick falls squarely on the careers of his students. “My success has been the students that I’ve had,” he says. That hasn’t made him picky, though: “I have never told a student that they can’t work for me,” he says. When all is said and done, Roe will have graduated 40 PhD students.

And his very first one continues to  sing his advisor’s praises. “I’m still working with DNA even after 30 years,” Chen says. “That’s all because of his inspiration.”

Naming Names

By the time he retires, Roe will have graduated some 40 PhDs, not to mention the dozens of graduate students and undergrads he advised. Some of the most notable names to have emerged from his tutelage:

Ellson Chen
Roe’s first student to earn a PhD, Chen is now president and CEO of Vita Genomics, a genomics-based biotech company headquartered in Taiwan. Chen worked at Genentech before becoming a principal scientist and director of the Celera Genomics Group at PE Corporation.

Feng Chen
After taking his PhD with Roe a decade ago, Chen is now at the Joint Genome Institute, where he was among the earliest users of the 454 sequencing platform when it first came out.

Leslie Johnston-Dow
Johnston-Dow headed off to industry after completing her degree with Roe, and she’s been with Applied Biosystems for years. Her specialty is in electrophoresis and HLA.

Akbar Khan
Khan worked for US AMRIID, or the United States of America Research Institute on Infectious Diseases, before heading to his current post at the US Army Edgewood Chemical Biological Center, where he is a microbiologist focusing on genomics and bioinformatics in biodefense applications.

Elaine Mardis
Mardis cut her teeth in DNA sequencing at the Roe lab, and as co-director of the Washington University Genome Sequencing Center, she’s played a critical role in overseeing sequencing tools as they’re brought into the lab.

Rick Wilson
As Roe’s first graduate student in Oklahoma, Wilson completed his PhD in 1986 and went on to help guide the Human Genome Project. Today, Wilson is director of the Washington University Genome Sequencing Center.

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