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From Pond Hockey to Top of Scientific World--U Minnesota Honors Distinguished Alumnus, World-Class Immunologist Dr. Ronald Faanes

On October 11, 2018, the University of Minnesota College of Biological Sciences (CBS) honored one of its own—eminent immunologist Ronald Faanes, PhD—at the College’s annual Recognition and Appreciation Dinner at Memorial Hall in the McNamara Alumni Center. Dr. Faanes, who received his BS (chemistry) and PhD (microbiology) from U Minnesota, was the keynote speaker at this year’s dinner, which drew a crowd of 300 donors, faculty, and student scholarship winners. Ron was introduced by CBS Dean Dr. Valery Forbes (https://cbs.umn.edu/contacts/valery-forbes), who noted that as a pupil and mentee of longtime CBS faculty member Dr. Palmer Rogers, “Ron brings a wealth of insight, and some really great stories, about the revered scientist and teacher for whom the Palmer Rogers Microbiology Scholar ship is named.” Some of Dr. Rogers family were in the audience and they could not help being moved by the poignant memories of Palmer that Ron would recount in his address. Ron, who had also played hockey for the Gophers, had moved on from U Minnesota to work first as a tumor immunologist at the Sloan-Kettering Institute, the research arm of the renowned Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, in New York. Legendary U Minnesota physician/scientist Dr. Robert Good, who had led the team that performed the world’s first successful human bone marrow transplant between persons who were not identical twins and is regarded as a founder of modern immunology, had just been named Director of Sloan-Kettering and he brought many of his best scientists, including Ron, along with him to New York.

Already, in graduate school in Palmer’s lab, Ron had shown the scientific talent and instinct that ultimately would take him to the top of the scientific world. He did experiments that demonstrated the existence of the key information molecule, messenger RNA (mRNA). The existence of such a molecule, which could transfer information from the DNA code to the protein-producing machinery, had been hypothesized, but its existence had never been rigorously proven. Ron’s experiments proved this. However, in the highly competitive world of science, similar work in a different model system by an already well-known scientist, Sydney Brenner, was widely credited as the work that proved the existence of mRNA. Brenner went on to win the Nobel Prize for this work and other towering scientific accomplishments. But on mRNA, U Minnesota grad student Ron Faanes had been right there with him.

Ron went on to other major accomplishments in his long scientific career, including being one of the first labs to demonstrate the process of T-cell killing, which is now at the foundation of recent advances in cancer immunotherapy. After Sloan-Kettering, Ron moved on to global pharmaceutical giant Boehringer-Ingelheim Pharmaceuticals, where he became Head of Immunology and worked for 22 years. He retired in 2003 and spends his time these days, Dr. Forbes said, building large radio-controlled model airplanes, playing a little golf, and helping his wife of 55 years, Sharon, who is a retired nurse and U Minnesota Duluth alum, with her many volunteer activities in the community. Ron also helps organize a senior charity hockey tournament, which he founded 10 years ago, in order to raise money for important health causes, including diabetes.

Dr. Forbes said that “As Ron will tell you tonight, he was not always the most likely candidate for such an illustrious academic and scientific career. His story is one of inspiration for all of us who have struggled—just a bit or maybe even quite a lot—to find their place in the world.”

Dr, Forbes also included a quote from BioQuick Editor & Publisher Mike O’Neill, who had done his college senior thesis work in Ron’s Sloan-Kettering lab in 1975-76, and who was in the audience at this event honoring his early mentor and life-long friend.

“My year in Ron’s lab changed my life and afforded me the great experience of working closely with a truly great scientist and also one of the very finest human beings I have met. In the lab, Ron was a great and enthusiastic teacher, who was infinitely curious, hard-working and brilliantly insightful. He was unselfishly dedicated to advancing the skills and knowledge of the students in his lab and would go out of his way to guide us in the right direction. The University of Minnesota can be quite proud of the brilliant scientist and even finer human being who started out many years ago as a young Golden Gopher and today is coming home.”

With that, Dr. Forbes welcomed Ron to the podium to give his address.

In his talk, Ron showed his characteristic modesty and sense of humor, and only indirectly hinted at the tremendous natural gifts, that, together with very hard work, carried him from U Minnesota to the pinnacles of world-class science.

Ron said that the evening is “a night to acknowledge the great generosity of so many donors to the Palmer Rogers Scholarship. As one of the donors (and a six-year student in the Rogers lab), I’ve been asked to share my story with you.” And what a story it was.

Ron began by saying, “I’m going to tell you a little bit about my tenure here at the University and tell you about the six years I spent with a great role model, Palmer Rogers, and the faculty of the Department of Microbiology. Also, I’m going to offer you some thoughts about the significance of those two impressive forces – the University and Palmer – in my own life and career.”

Ron began with a description of his early academic days that did not augur well for a bright scientific future.

“As Valery mentioned, I was not the most likely candidate for an academic and scientific career. In fact, anyone looking at my early college performance would be surprised to see where I’ve ended up. A large part of the credit for what has happened in my life results from the 14 years I spent on this campus, and the great faculty it was my privilege to train with.”

“I’m a Minnesota native who grew up in South Minneapolis and graduated from Roosevelt High School. I’ll be honest--I was an enthusiastic multi-sport high school athlete, but a terrible high school student. My high school grades didn’t reflect it, but I loved chemistry, math, and public health.”

“I knew my parents wanted me to go to college. I had no idea what I was going to college for. I focused on IT -- now CSE -- because that is where my friends were enrolling. I didn’t have the grades for IT, so I applied to the College of Liberal Arts (this was back before there was a College of Biological Sciences). I was admitted to CLA on condition I could pass remedial English. I managed to fulfill this obligation, though I must say it wasn’t accomplished by being first in the class of six remedial English students. I never really developed good study habits. I can only describe my time as an undergraduate as fun-filled, not the best indicator of academic success."

“I still remember General Microbiology my last quarter, taught by Marty Dworkin whom some of you may know. This class was the turning point. I knew it was what I wanted to do. I had gone through four years to get to that point and make that realization and discover the intrigue of the microbial world.”

“I remember getting in the microbiology lab those first days and looking in a microscope, seeing bugs running around. You could grow them on agar! I learned which caused disease, how antibiotics worked, getting some dirt from the yard and growing colonies of many varieties of microorganisms. It was beyond anything I could ever have imagined. Needless to say those first weeks in General Micro got me excited. And it still fascinates me, providing many hours of bedtime reading.”

“I have always remained grateful to the University for taking a chance on me and giving an opportunity to an underachieving student like myself. It really gave me a second chance. I guess if I had a lesson to draw from this experience it would be that you need to take advantage of opportunities, ask questions, look for those second chances and grab and go after them. I have learned that “if you don’t ask, you never get” and you will be really surprised at where asking may lead. If you’ve been able to move ahead, you need to provide those opportunities, those second chances, for others.”

“I was fortunate to find something I was really interested in that last quarter general microbiology course which led me to the lab of Dr. Palmer Rogers. He was at that time the Chairman of the Department of Microbiology Graduate Committee. If my memory is correct I was his third student at Minnesota. In his position as Graduate Committee Chairman, he was never light on any of his students as much as we complained. He expected us to toe the line in every respect and the tone was set in our first meeting.”

“He said to me in his exact words before introductory conversation as we entered his office: ‘Ron, your undergraduate grades are deplorable, however you did graduate from the best School of Chemistry in the country with close to B+ average which says you can do something. If you can promise me to maintain a B average in Graduate Courses in the Department of Microbiology curriculum, we will consider you to be a candidate for our Ph.D. program.’ He outlined a program I had to complete in two years, which I could not deviate from. Needless to say, here I am with his guidance. I made it.”

“I made it even though I continued to play athletics, much to my physical detriment. I often came to the lab with broken bones from football, sprains from basketball, and a severe concussion with 40 stitches across my forehead from a city championship hockey game. We played without helmets back then … ouch! Palmer used to say that at the rate I was breaking body parts, there wouldn’t be enough left of me to graduate--suggesting I take up tennis or lawn bowling which didn’t involve body contact.”

Then Ron focused more sharply on Palmer and his influence.

“Enough about me, let me tell you a little bit about Palmer. I have to say that I really don’t know where I’d be if it weren’t for him. There was intensity in that lab. He set a high standard. He was devoted to the scientific method. Palmer was ethical, honest, a true Renaissance man enjoying classical music and art along with science. Where we really bonded was his intense underlying competitive spirit, which matched mine. This mild-mannered soft-spoken guy -- when presented with a challenge -- gave his all. We had fierce racquet and hand ball games where the last guy standing was not always the winner. I really admired this. In the lab, it made no sense to go to him with a single experimental result; you needed to demonstrate results were reproducible.”

“He loved to tell the story of the psychologist who wanted to answer the question does a flea need all legs to jump? He had trained a flea to jump on command he sequentially removed legs from the flea giving the command after each amputation Finally the flea was down to one leg. He gave the command to jump and the flea struggled and then just rolled over. The psychologist wrote in his data book: ‘Conclusion: when you remove the legs from a flea it can no longer hear.’ Needless to say, we didn’t want to make the same mistake.”

“So, as I say, Palmer had high expectations for everyone in the lab.”

“For example, he expected us to be in the lab when he was there. He would get there at 8 o’clock on Saturday mornings and work till noon. I’d roll in a lot later and he’d tell me, you could leave at noon if you got here earlier. We never got extra credit for the time we spent till 3 am. This is where my friend Ken Jeddeloh came in. My first year was all course work so Palmer never knew what time I got to campus. For the following two years, Ken was teaching at the U while going to graduate school. He acted like a school bus for several kids in South Minneapolis. I was one of them. He needed to be in his classroom at 7, so I was at the hospital at 6:50 before the boss arrived. Without Ken to pick me up and drop me off at the door of the hospital there is no telling what the outcome would have been. Needless to say, Palmer was impressed that I was always there before him, sleeping at my desk.”

And Ron closed his address with some moving words of advice for students just starting out and for those in mid-career.

“I’ve talked tonight about opportunities. I’ve talked about a great man who was my mentor, as many of you agree, who I hope can still be an inspiration for all of you. One thing I’ve learned through the years is that everyone has something to offer. It’s just a matter of finding what it is. For me, it was what I found in the world of microbes. And the helping hand I received from a college — and a man — who believed in second chances.”

“I’ve been very fortunate, as I said in the beginning; never in my wildest dreams would I have ever thought I would be standing before you tonight. I’ve traveled the world, made friendships around the globe, had dinner with Nobel laureates, and in my corporate life led teams bringing three potential therapeutic products from the concept to the patient. One of these became an actual marketed drug for AIDs.”

“Who would have ever thought that a kid from South Minneapolis with the deplorable grades would have come so far?”
“Recent conversations with sons and daughters who want to go to grad school highlight how things have changed. Due to cutbacks to NIH funding, graduate fellowships which supported me, are virtually gone. Support has to come from somewhere for kids to go to school. It’s hard to complete a degree in four years.”

“That’s where the generosity of those who have gone before becomes so important.”

“For those of you still in school or those of you in the middle of careers, I’d urge you to direct your attention to the advantages and the opportunities that are put in front of you. When those chances come you may take them.”

“So in closing, I’d urge everyone here tonight – Don’t be afraid to take the lead, to ask questions. And see where the answers lead. Follow the model of Palmer Rogers. Be persistent. Be rigorous and keep at it.”

“And SKI U MA!”

After Ron’s moving address, it was announced that Ron and his wife Sharon had bequeathed their entire estate to the U of Minnesota’s College of Biologial Sciences.

EDITOR’S NOTE

I would like to add just one more story about my college mentor and life-long friend. It is a story that Ron would never tell himself but that speaks volumes about who he is.

Once Ron saved the life of a young woman he didn’t even know who was trapped in an overturned car on a major NY highway--within seconds after Ron had pulled the woman out, her car was hit by a speeding limousine that also hit Ron who was standing by his car trying to slow the approaching limo. The limo did not stop and the woman’s car exploded on impact. Ron had saved the woman’s life and suffered serious injuries, as the limo had also hit him after hitting the woman’s car—but, the woman, who was unhurt thanks to Ron, never even thanked him later. But still, I am absolutely sure he would do the exact same thing again.

That is true character and true courage—and that is Ron Faanes.

--Michael D. O’Neill, Editor & Publisher, BioQuick News

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Dr. Ron Faanes and wife Sharon at the U Minnesota Recognition Dinner. Ron & Sharon have bequeathed their entire estate to the University's College of Biological Sciences.