U of M’s Corn Gene-ious Ron Phillips retires

Written by Jonathan Eisenthal

University of Minnesota Regents Professor and McKnight Presidential Chair in Genomics Ron Phillips will surely be regarded by history as a father of agricultural biotechnology. He retires this month, capping his career with the award of the prestigious Medal of Science, bestowed by one of the world’s oldest, most revered universities, the University of Bologna, Italy.

His work over a storied four-decade academic career has been integral to the development of knowledge of the corn genome. In particular his work and the work of colleagues and students has led to the discovery of the quantitative trait locus in the corn gene that governs flowering time.  Through this discovery, it has been possible to create inbreds with flowering timed to maximize productivity based on where the plant is being grown.

At the level of pure science across the spectrum of genetics, this work has led to “a better understanding of the nature of quantitative trait variation,” according to a paper published by colleagues and former students of Phillips in the journal Maytica.

Phillips pioneered techniques for the reproduction of living corn plants from cell tissue, which has provided a foundation for the use of genetics to shape the characteristics of the corn plant.

The University of Minnesota celebrates Prof. Phillips illustrious career with a daylong symposium on May 24 that will include more than 20 speakers who will discuss the latest projects in the genetics of cereal plants.  The day will conclude with a celebratory dinner.

(more information about the Phillips retirement events)

“As everybody knows, the biggest crop in the world is called wheat, but the crop that will produce way beyond any other, well into the future is corn because of its potential uses in the emerging carbohydrate economy,” said Gerald Tumbleson, a corn farmer in Sherburn, Minnesota, and a huge fan of Prof. Phillips. Tumbleson said of Phillips, “For him to take his life and devote it to understanding corn’s potential is so important.”

Of course, by volume, and economic value, corn is the United States’ most important cereal crop. Phillips believes genetic science holds great potential for the most serious questions facing humanity. The Cargill Microbial and Plant Genomics Center at the University of Minnesota has provided an incredibly rich, synergistic environment for that forward development of genetic science.

“(The Medal of Science) is a distinct honor recognizing our efforts in ‘Mobilizing Science for Agriculture,’ the title of my acceptance speech,” Phillips said. “The University of Minnesota provides excellent opportunities to discover innovative approaches to help alleviate the hunger of one billion malnourished people in today’s world, a problem that does not have to exist.”

Phillips has also won the Wolf Prize in Agriculture presented at the Knesset in Israel and has been a member of the National Academy of Sciences since 1991. In 2010 he was awarded the Siehl Prize, for his contribution to greater knowledge in agriculture.

“I put him up there with Borlaug,” said Tumbleson. “To my mind, he is a candidate for the Nobel prize.”

His colleagues and students conclude the Maytica paper by enumerating some of Phillips’ “philosophies and attributes”:

1. Treasure your exceptions. Dr. Phillips often repeated this phrase originally attributed to the geneticist William Bateson. One of Dr. Phillips talents is to identify and pursue unexpected findings, as opposed to simply interpret the designed outcome from an experiment. His attention to detail provided confidence in the experimental results, and unexpected exceptions such as weak oat plants containing corn chromosomes – led to new lines of research.

2. Give your students your best ideas. Dr. Phillips is a selfless and patient supporter of his students. This selfless attitude has contributed to the successful careers of people that he mentored and the advancement of his scientific thought. His approach is to provide students with ideas and resources, and then to allow them substantial independence in the design of their experiments and the extent of their experimentation. This approach has produced students that have the capacity to operate independently and productively as they move into their own research positions.

3. Conduct research with integrity and scientific rigor. Dr. Phillips has exemplified throughout his career the highest standards of integrity and scientific rigor and has passed those values on to those he has mentored.

4. Facilitate the growth of your students in the scientific community. Dr. Phillips was outstanding in promoting the people that he mentored, both during their time in his lab as well as throughout their careers.

5. Collegial relationships built on openness and honesty are synergistic in advancing scientific excellence. Dr. Phillips valued long-term colleagues including Burle Gengenbach, Richard Kowles, Howard Rines, and Irwin Rubenstein because of the open and deep scientific discussions that they had regarding research. His approach is to encourage students and colleagues to challenge each other’s hypotheses, data, and interpretations in a positive and productive environment, ensuring that published results withstand scrutiny and are accurately interpreted.

6. A successful scientist can also have a successful family. Dr. Phillips demonstrated that success in your career does not require sacrificing your family. He is a role model in this regard for students, other faculty, and those with whom he interacted, and proved that a highly productive career does not entail working seven days a week. All those associated with him remember fondly his wife, Judy, and have heard him speak with pride about his children, Angie and Brett.


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