On the Passing of a Great Mentor

Roger M. Spanswick, Professor of Plant Biology, chair of my Ph.D. and undergraduate advisor, died on February 12, 2014 at the age of 74.

Roger Spanswick mentored me through some of the biggest transitions in my life, educationally and just in growing up. Though my current work is nearly impossible to connect directly to the work I did with Roger, I still feel the strength of Roger’s mentoring after all these years; a testament to Roger’s insistence that the PhD prepares one for work across all of the scientific disciplines and beyond.

I first met Roger in 1983 or 1984 as a sophomore in Biology at Cornell, when I sought him out to advance my interests in plant physiology. Roger immediately took me under his wing, gave me readings and a tour of his lab. Before long, I had a steady job washing glassware and was embedded in a big lab full of people working on very different projects ranging from electrophysiology (never got to patch clamp!), to proton cotransport in vesicles (too reductionist for me!) to sugar transport into seeds (aha! relevant to crop yields- my interest from the beginning).

Roger’s philosophy of mentoring was “expose them and it will come”… Roger kept me in touch with a wide array of different research projects and people- postdocs, grads, professors, without any requirement to be productive right away – just explore. At the time, Roger’s lab was big and well funded- at least 10 grads + 5 or more postdocs. Roger was not omnipresent except when I asked for his time- and then he was always forthcoming. When I started to express specific interests, he generously backed me up with his resources and time, and increased his investments and his expectations to keep pace with my interests. We all followed our interests in Roger’s lab- often to a fault! He sometimes spent the bulk of his funding supporting work that was not clearly related to what was funded; making sure folks were doing the most exciting work. We always felt Roger was backing us up and counting on us to make the big moves.

My first journal article (Ellis & Spanswick 1987), submitted while I was still an undergraduate, was the product of this philosophy. The partitioning of photosynthate from leaf to seed is responsible for crop yields, so I was attracted to the lab’s work on sugar fluxes in developing seeds. Drawing on my electronic hobbyist skills, I was encouraged to to build equipment enabling us to perfuse solutions through surgically opened seeds so we could study mechanisms controlling this process. After little more than a year of work, Roger helped me to publish the results, yielding the only paper I’ve ever had accepted without revisions (surprising everyone!) I wonder if that will ever happen again. Even as an undergraduate there was never any question of first authorship. In Roger’s lab, those who did the work and wrote the paper were first author always.

One thing led to another. Roger asked me to continue for an MS degree, now using 14C labeling together with Bob Turgeon, beginning in Fall 1986, which led to my PhD , defended in Fall of 1989 (granted in 1990). During this time my interests shifted dramatically. I came to realize that feeding people had less to do with crop yields than with farming systems and food systems, so I yearned to investigate food production at the systems level. Sustainable agriculture became my abiding interest (leading later to landscape ecology and global ecology). Even as my focus drifted, Roger supported my work and kept me on track for my PhD. I graduated in record time- 3 1/2 years (without MS). Thank you Roger!

Three anecdotes about Roger. When I was temporarily suspended for a sit-in at Cornell calling for the university to Divest from South Africa, I was reluctant to tell Roger, thinking that he would not respect my non-research activities – but the administration told him and he called me in. I expected to be dressed down. What a surprise I had when Roger, big smile on his face, expressed his strong support for my activism- he had protested as a student in the UK about the Sharpville massacre! A second was from Helen, his wife, who always made sure us students knew who Roger really was…At some point, Roger, not a pet lover, told the family: “If this dog stays, I’m leaving.” And Helen would say, smiling “and Roger’s still here!” Finally, as I was finishing my dissertation, I had grown to think my research results supported a mainstream theory in physiology. Roger was not convinced, and insisted on doing a simple experiment to test this- one I resisted because it was so much simpler than the sophisticated techniques at the core of my work. But he prevailed- and when I did the work, he was totally right. My dissertation was promptly revised. I learned my lesson.

I last saw Roger this past summer when he and Helen visited us at our home in Baltimore. Roger seemed so alive when we last met- a live wire as usual, – even though he described his struggle and remission from cancer. But typical of Roger, he could have been counting the days and not telling anyone- always on the bright side.

Perhaps my strongest emotion about my relationship with Roger is that he was the one who always backed me up, the one who made sure I had space and impetus to keep advancing my way forward. He only occasionally pushed strongly in any direction- and when he did, it was always for good reason.

I will never forget Roger. Nor will his many students. Roger’s spirit of free exploration, of digging into things and making sure of our knowledge, and of really caring about both the process of science and the people we do science with, will live on.

If I can be a mentor half as great as Roger, I will have achieved great things.

Obituary in Cornell Chronicle:

Obituary in Ithaca Journal

Our papers together

As undergraduate: Ellis, E.C., and Spanswick, R.M., 1987. Sugar efflux from attached seed coats of Glycine max (L.) Merr.. Journal of Experimental Botany 38:1470 1483.[download]

Dissertation: Ellis, E.C. 1990. Quantitative analysis of photosynthate unloading in developing seeds of Phaseolus vulgaris L. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, Cornell University. [download]

From Dissertation

Ellis, E.C., Turgeon, R., and Spanswick, R.M., 1992. Quantitative analysis of photosynthate unloading in developing seeds of Phaseolus vulgaris L. I. The use of steady state labeling. Plant Physiology 99:635 642. [download]

Ellis, E.C., Turgeon, R., and Spanswick, R.M., 1992. Quantitative analysis of photosynthate unloading in developing seeds of Phaseolus vulgaris L. II. Pathway and turgor-sensitivity. Plant Physiology 99:643 651. [download]

Ellis, E.C., Turgeon, R., and Spanswick, R.M., 1992. Changes in photosynthate unloading from perfused seeds of Phaseolus vulgaris L. induced by osmoticum and Ethylenediaminetetraacetate (EDTA). Journal of Experimental Botany 43:1235 1241.[download]