The Perkins Lab -- Neurospora Genetics and Biology
Department of Biological Sciences, Stanford University

Eric Selker , University of Oregon

As many have already pointed out, David Perkins and Dot Newmeyer were of a rare “breed” of humans. They successfully dedicated themselves to solving scientific and societal problems and routinely exhibited unusual kindness, generosity and humility in the process.  Moreover, they did not let normal time constraints defer them from relentless rigor.  Although their hard work is legendary, and can partially account for their impressive productivity, it can not account for their incredible attention to detail.  I was reminded of this while reviewing some of nearly 200 correspondences with David over the last approximately quarter century.  For example, in a letter from April 1990, written in response to my request for comments on my Annual Review of Genetics manuscript, David starts out, “Dot and I have both read the review independently, then discussed it.” He then continued with nine hand-written pages of comments in addition to numerous annotations on the actual manuscript.  Comments were constructive, as from a good parent, but words were not minced.  For example, he wrote, “The main problem now, as I see it, is that the paper starts out too slowly and is dull for the first 14 pages till you get down to business with the main topics.  From there on it is fascinating and a goldmine of information. (Not to say that revisions aren’t needed from p. 14 on.)”  Although I corresponded primarily with David, this was one of several occasions Dot rewarded me and members of my lab with detailed and insightful comments on ideas and manuscripts that we sent her way. 

Looking over other letters, an unmistakable feature of correspondences with David was effort to promote scientific progress, typically by fostering collaborations.  David had a nearly comprehensive overview of the Neurospora field and worked to fill in any perceived deficiencies, through his own research and/or by encouraging that of others.  He was relentless in this pursuit, although gentle and patient.  This is well illustrated by our joint eas paper, on which David made the final revisions just weeks before his death, after nurturing the project for 20 years.  Soon after discovering RIP, I suggested to David that RIP might account for his observation of high frequency mutation of cya-8 in crosses of strains defective for the unlinked eas gene.  To encourage me to help him explore this possibility, on 1 April 1987 he wrote: “Enclosed is a summary of what we know so far about the eas-cya-8 mutation system.  I framed this in form of a paper just to see what we had and what we needed – not with intention to publish prematurely…Any ideas will be much appreciated.”  This was the trap door for me and several members of my lab who tried, with rather limited success, to serve as David’s “molecular collaborators”.  In a letter of July 1987, he urged me to become an “honorary southern Californian” at the upcoming Neurospora meeting in Irvine and then reported that “the eas project continues on track.” But two months later he wrote: “I hope your theory on eas and cya-8 holds up, but won’t be surprised should it not.”  Clearly he had a knack for luring in collaborators, but more impressive was his perseverance on a tough project of limited interest and his tolerance of those who wished to help but could not contribute a great deal.  The eas paper would not have seen the light of day if anyone other than David were in the driver’s seat. 

Although David was not interested in engaging in molecular biology himself, he fully understood its value and was instrumental in moving Neurospora into the molecular age.  As a graduate student across the hall from the Perkins laboratory, when I (with the blessings of my advisor, Charley Yanofsky) decided to use Neurospora to embark on a molecular dissection of gene regulation in a eukaryote, David did everything possible to help.  For example, when I wished to test yeast markers (trp-1, ura-3 and his-3) in Neurospora, he offered to build me the necessary host strains, which at that time needed to include markers such as eas to reduce the possibility of dispersal of strains bearing “recombinant” molecules.  He also personally gave me tips on the care and breeding of Neurospora, as he did for countless others before and after me.

While David’s altruism and dedication to science are well known and appreciated, I felt most privileged to have benefited from his fine example as a citizen of the world.  As a graduate student I was struck by the fact that he turned off the artificial illumination in the lab while eating lunch in the small room next to his office, which had enough natural illumination.  Although he enjoyed traveling, he did not use energy carelessly and rode his bike or walked whenever possible.  As many have already noted, he also cared a great deal for those less fortunate than himself.  In the last email I received from David (on November 26, 2006), in response to my comments about going to Germany to help honor murdered Jews, he mentioned “I was in Germany visiting sites we bombed the week the concentration camps were being discovered, and although I saw none of that at first hand, have been haunted ever since.”  Aside from the uncharacteristic slight delay in getting a response from David, the only indication that David was not operating as usual came a few lines later when he wrote: “My head is not screwed on quite right now.  Dot is in the hospital with pneumonia and complications accompanying congestive heart failure.  Aging has not been kind to her.”  and then, “Hasty good wishes, David”.

 

 

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