Faculty image Charles F. Yocum Alfred S. Sussman Distinguished University Professor Emeritus Molecular, Cellular and Developmental Biology, LS&A
Curriculum Vitae

A Biographical Note. I grew up in a small farming community, Storm Lake, Iowa, where I had many excellent educational opportunities, among them learning from a gifted and persuasive chemistry teacher, receiving instruction from two talented band directors who introduced me to the French horn, and learning to write from a pair of excellent English teachers. I majored in chemistry and biochemistry at Iowa State University and played horn in the orchestra and symphonic band. Summer work for the DeKalb Seed Corn Company helped to pay my tuition. My physical chemistry professor was Lawrence Bartell, who became one of my colleagues at Michigan. I did my undergraduate research project on tRNAs with Jack Horowitz, and today Jack’s son Jeffrey is a professor in Kinesiology at Michigan. It’s a small world.

After graduation I spent time thinking about chemistry vs. biochemistry while working at the IIT Research Institute in Chicago. Biochemistry won, I got my Ph.D. with Anthony San Pietro at Indiana University and received further training with Efraim Racker as a post-doctoral fellow at Cornell University. My musical career peaked at Cornell; I performed at Carnegie Hall in the Cornell orchestra under the baton of Karel Husa, an excellent conductor and Pulitzer Prize winning composer. When I began to interview for academic positions, Jim Siedow (now at Duke University), a graduate student colleague from Indiana who was working as a post-doctoral fellow at Michigan, told me he’d seen a job posting on campus for a position in the area of photosynthesis. I applied and the LS&A Botany Department invited me for a seminar in the spring of 1973. I traveled to Michigan ready to discuss science, but the questioning by many faculty concerned whether I would be happy in a biology department. “Yes” was the right answer; I got the position.

Department Changes. Shortly after I arrived at Michigan, Frank Rhodes, dean of LS&A, decided to merge the departments of Botany and Zoology into a single unit. A driving force for the reorganization was the necessity to overcome internal resistance to molecular biology, which was exerting a strong influence on all subdivisions of the life sciences. When the reorganization of Botany and Zoology got underway, I was appointed to the committee that formulated the rules of governance for the new unit. My first exposure to academic politics was interesting, and, for an untenured person, at times a bit terrifying because I represented a “molecular” point of view on a committee that had a number of senior members of the Old Guard. Fortunately, William Dawson, a physiological ecologist, led the committee very skillfully, became the first chair of the new Division of Biological Sciences and initiated the faculty recruiting efforts that redirected research into areas of the molecular biosciences. The Division was comprised of four “interest groups” that included Cell and Molecular Biology. Botany was retained, and new groups called Ecology and Evolutionary Biology and Experimental Biology also came into being. Bill Dawson was followed by Michael Martin, who continued to foster the growth of new areas in the Division, and in 1985 I became chair. Shortly after that, at the urging of the faculty, and with approval by the Regents, the Division became the Department of Biology. This eliminated the interest groups and created an entirely new administrative structure, a single department with more than sixty faculty spanning everything from systematics to biophysics, which persisted up to 2002 when the Regents approved a separation of the Department of Biology into two new units, Molecular, Cellular and Development Biology (MCDB) and Ecology and Evolutionary Biology (EEB).

At the end of my time as chair in 1991, I received a half-time appointment in Chemistry, which facilitated a number of research collaborations that will be discussed later. The “musical departments” stopped with my retirement in 2010, by which time I had been affiliated (nomenclaturally) with a total of five different departments over my career at Michigan. Crystal balls are notoriously unreliable, but it’s likely that future developments will bring about additional changes in the organization of the life sciences in LS&A. Biology is said to be the science of the 21st century, and part of the key to rapid progress in this area is linked to flexibility in organization and in research methodologies, as well as to the ability to manage and analyze huge bodies of data, from the molecular to the organismal level. As this is being written, President Schlissel’s committee on the biosciences at Michigan has issued its report and recommendations, and a search for a new vice provost for the biosciences is under way.

Research. In 1973, one of the attractive features of my new position at Michigan was financial support over my first year or two in the form of grants from Rackham and the Phoenix Memorial Project. I was able to recruit my first graduate students and to establish a research program that marked me as an independent investigator whose research would follow a completely different path from that of my doctoral and post-doctoral mentors. Many of my newly-recruited colleagues at that time profited from the same intramural funding sources, and we all moved ahead to obtain grants from federal agencies that supported our research programs up to, and beyond, the transition to emeritus status. Now, new faculty must have completed much longer apprenticeships as post-doctoral fellows in order to establish independence, and must begin to seek extramural support as quickly as possible. With the increasing cost of research has come an increased pressure to obtain grants from the National Institutes of Health that provide large budgets. This, in turn, has directed faculty recruitment into disciplinary foci that are more aligned with the biomedical sciences and health-related research. The result is to blur the distinctions between basic research in LS&A and that in Medicine. Restrictions in NIH funding may one day return attention to the National Science Foundation’s programs in the fundamental areas of the life sciences as a source of grants.

From the beginning of my career, I was fortunate to be able to focus my research on photosynthesis, a field with many more questions than answers, one that had not attracted many biochemists owing to the difficulty in isolating active photosynthetic preparations. At Cornell, I had discovered that the enzyme system that catalyzes photosynthetic oxygen production in plants, called photosystem 2, could be separated from all other proteins while retaining extraordinarily high activity, something that had not been previously accomplished. Unfortunately, because several senior researchers in my field had failed repeatedly to achieve this end, no one would take my discovery seriously, and I was discouraged from trying to publish my results. Instead, I focused my initial research at Michigan on energy conversion reactions. My students and I studied electron transfer mechanisms, and demonstrated an evolutionary relationship between energy transduction in bacterial photosynthesis and the corresponding reaction in plants. Finally, in 1980 I was able to use my method for isolation of photosystem 2 to solve a problem that had prevented investigators from studying an important component of the oxygen-producing machinery. The paper reporting the new procedure was still in press when the rumor mill leaked the news about its contents. I received a number of phone calls asking for more information, including the method used, mostly from the same senior figures who had been skeptical of my earlier results. The paper itself has been pretty successful; it now has about 1700 citations, and is still being cited. With this breakthrough I was able to focus all of my research efforts on identification of the proteins and inorganic ions that plants use to produce oxygen, and how they fit together to produce the active enzyme system. This work continued up to my retirement. Photosystem 2 turns out to be a very complex enzyme (my senior colleagues thought it was one of the “black boxes” of science, one that might never be understood). I was extremely fortunate to be among the first to open the “black box” and reveal its contents.

Although I was hired by the Botany Department, my training was in chemistry and biochemistry. Nevertheless, I received a warm welcome and support from many colleagues I had a number of very useful scientific interactions with David Shappirio, Hiroshi Ikuma and Conrad Yocum (no relation), and with Susan and Peter Kilham, as well as helpful advice from Hal Christenson, Jud Coon and Vince Massey in Biological Chemistry, and from Dick Sands in Biophysics. Al Sussman had already moved on from Botany into university administration, but he was always ready to provide mentoring on both scientific and academic issues, which is why I chose to become Alfred S. Sussman collegiate, and later, distinguished university professors. In the late ‘70’s I began a very productive collaboration with Robert Sharp in Chemistry, applying NMR to a major problem that we solved. My subsequent interactions with colleagues in Chemistry, in particular Jim Penner-Hahn and Vince Pecoraro, continued into the 21st century. When I was appointed half-time in Chemistry I taught a number of courses in the department. In MCDB, my research profited greatly from the presence of two outstanding plant molecular biologists, Eran Pichersky and John Schiefelbein, whose help turned my research in a new direction that has yielded many significant results. For 20 years I enjoyed a productive collaboration with G.T. Babcock, a brilliant physical chemist at Michigan State whose untimely death came as a heavy blow to the bioenergetics community. I have also had the good fortune to obtain support by way of both Fulbright and Guggenheim fellowships that allowed me to carry out a long-standing collaboration with Prof. H.J. van Gorkom in the Biophysics Department at Leiden University in the Netherlands. In retirement I provide occasional advice to Prof. Jennifer Ogilvie in Physics/Biophysics; she has replaced me as Michigan’s resident investigator of molecular aspects of photosystem 2 activity. The open minded attitudes of my colleagues throughout my time here removed all possible impediments to cooperation, and this had an enormous beneficial impact on my research career.

Teaching. Teaching wasn’t an activity that was uppermost on the mind of an academic job candidate in the early 1970’s, and in fact it was not mentioned during my job interview. When I arrived in Ann Arbor I learned that I would be giving lectures to about 800 undergraduates in the introductory biology course on a regular basis, which turned out to be my first five semesters on campus. I would be teaching genetics and plant physiology, topics well outside my area of expertise. The initial experience was terrifying and my teaching evaluations were devastating, but with some supportive comments from Bill Frye (who later became LSA dean and then Vice President for Academic Affairs) and the realization that I was being graded on information content and performance, I mastered the large lecture assignment. After the five-semester stint in introductory biology, I was moved on to a cell biology course for seniors and had the opportunity to develop a course in bioenergetics. My academic training was in biochemistry, but I didn’t teach this subject owing to the absence of a major in the area, and to ownership of the existing LS&A course by a senior biology faculty member. Many years later, when Jack Dixon arrived to chair the Department of Biological Chemistry in the Medical School, I was asked to chair a committee to propose a new cross-college major in biological chemistry. The new major is a terrific success, with teaching shared by MCDB, Chemistry and Biological Chemistry. Undergraduate research has figured prominently in the curriculum from the very beginning of the concentration program. Students are enthusiastic and many have gone on to outstanding careers in academia, medicine and the private sector.

Teaching introductory courses is not without its humorous moments. When I began my formal appointment in Chemistry, my first assignment was to lecture in the large introductory course in the fall term. Things went well, and the students were generous in their evaluations. My winter term assignment was back in Biology, where I was asked, yet again, to lecture in the large introductory course. The looks on the faces of about one fourth of the class were interesting when I walked into the auditorium. These were my chemistry students from the preceding semester, and they were about to get another dose of me in this course.

In the end, I have come to realize that teaching is much like research in that one is seeking to find the best way to transfer complex information. The classroom becomes a laboratory of sorts, where the professor watches the faces of his or her students to see if the message is getting through, and adjusts the message to enhance the learning process. For new faculty, the transition to the classroom is now eased by policies that grant the beginner a couple of terms off from teaching so the research program can get underway. This is a humane gesture, certainly far more humane than what I experienced, and in the majority of cases the time off also encourages excellent classroom performance.

Administration. In my career as a department chair, I was extraordinarily fortunate to serve with two great deans. The first of these was Peter Steiner, who in 1985 decided that my youth and naivety were not barriers to administrative service. One of Peter’s many goals was to improve the standing of LS&A departments with regard to their peer units elsewhere. He proved to be supportive and receptive to intelligent arguments about how this could be achieved. A friendship developed that lasted until his passing. When Peter stepped down, Edie Goldenberg took over and continued the emphasis on quality and also stressed the importance of teaching. Her vision and courage in doing so have had beneficial effects on LS&A that have lasted up to the present time.

The most trying experience in my time as chair was the total renovation of the E.H. Kraus Natural Science Building. Situated across North University Avenue from Hill Auditorium, the building is one of the structures designed by Albert Kahn, and is listed in the National Registry of Historic Places. Because such a listing effectively blocks demolition to make way for a modern facility, it was ordained that the building upgrade would be done with the faculty in it, and it was only with the efforts of committed colleagues like Julian Adams, Wes Brown and Steve Easter that we managed to avoid major disasters and long term damage to the intellectual life of the department. Through a coalition of luck and fortitude on the part of the faculty and staff, the department actually managed to hire several new colleagues while at the same time increasing the volume of extramural support for research during the renovation process. More than 25 years later, the university is finally addressing the serious need for a new biology building, which is going up in the space where North Hall once stood.

I have served on a large number of LS&A and university committees, the most interesting of which was the executive committee of LS&A, where my three-year term coincided with the deanship of Prof. Shirley Neuman. It was challenging to immerse oneself in the flow of documents from the three divisions of the college (Humanities, Natural Sciences, and Social Sciences) so as to understand these areas at a depth that informed important votes on issues like approval of new faculty positions and of tenure recommendations. As a committee we were also involved in helping Dean Neuman learn about LS&A and about how the three divisions functioned while having very different needs, teaching duties, and approaches to scholarly research.

University Finances. The fall of 1973 marked my first semester at Michigan as well as the beginnings of budget cuts arising from one of the recurring financial crises in the state, linked in this case to an oil embargo that impacted the automobile industry. I remember faculty meetings where measures to address the cuts at the departmental level were discussed, and I saw memos to the faculty from the central administration setting out the dire consequences we faced from this event. What I later realized was that at no point was there any mention of dismissals of untenured faculty, something that I recall being mentioned at other institutions at about the same time. In my opinion, the leadership of Harold Shapiro and Bill Frye in the 1980’s established a financial foundation that seems to have buffered the university against financial downturns to the present day. During my time as chair of the Biology Department, it was very satisfying to tell job candidates that there was never a case of a tenure decision that was influenced by financial issues. This is quite remarkable given the rocky financial history of the state of Michigan, and the problems at other universities, both public and private, over the same period of time.

Music. Arriving in Ann Arbor in 1973 with the prospect of having to teach and start a research program, I didn’t have high hopes of playing the horn any longer. This was driven home by some feeble attempts to see about playing in one of the local orchestras. Louis Stout was the horn professor in the School of Music at that time, and his reputation and skill as a trainer of young hornists was such that all organizations for miles around were heavily populated with players whose expertise greatly exceeded my own. I still have the horn, and make sure that the valves are oiled and that it’s not rusting. The brief period of disappointment at giving up playing was replaced by the terrific concert series put together by the UMS. I’ve heard all of the major orchestras from the United States and abroad under Abbado, Chailly, Giulini, Haitink, Masur, Muti, Timerkanov, et al., not to mention recitals by Horowitz, Perahia, Uchida and so on. Classical music today is having a hard time surviving, and it’s good to see the large number of students who turn out for concerts in Hill Auditorium.

Summary. For me, Michigan turned out to be the ideal place to grow a career that has spanned several disciplines and drawn financial support from non-biomedical resources. My ability to support my research with funding from the National Science Foundation and the US Department of Agriculture provided continuous funding for more than thirty five years. The collaborations here and elsewhere have enriched my research productivity and brought many new friends into my life. The invigorating experiences I’ve had teaching undergraduates and graduate students at Michigan have also been a learning process for me. I often think that I have learned more from my graduate students and post-doctoral fellows than they learned from me. All of these individuals have succeeded in a variety of careers in academia, the private sector, and in health organizations. All of their names appear as authors of papers listed in my c.v. These bright, motivated, interesting people added an invaluable dimension to my career. In the end, as I look back over my time at Michigan, I realize that I have been extraordinarily fortunate to have been paid for having so much fun.

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