Dr. John Donelson, Professor Emeritus and former Head of Biochemistry, has been awarded the 2016 Distinguished Mentor Award. Professor Donelson has an outstanding record of mentoring trainees, faculty and staff at all levels. By his example, and with his guidance and leadership, he has influenced the lives and careers of many scientists and physicians at Iowa and beyond.
After obtaining a BS in Biophysics from Iowa State, he left the comforts of his youth by joining the American Peace Corps. He taught math, chemistry and physics in Ghana, West Africa. There, he saw firsthand the havoc wrought by infectious diseases. This motivated him to return to the US, where he attended graduate school at Cornell University. He earned his PhD in Biochemistry in 1971 for work on exonucleolytic DNA sequence determination with DNA polymerase I. He was awarded a Helen Hay Whitney fellowship to further develop DNA sequencing and phage molecular biology in Cambridge, England, with Nobel Laureate Fred Sanger. Indeed, work that John and other luminaries did with Sanger during this period contributed to Sanger’s second Nobel Prize for dideoxy sequencing of DNA. Professor Donelson continued pioneering studies in molecular biology during a brief second postdoc at Stanford University with Professor David Hogness. He was then recruited to the Department of Biochemistry at the University of Iowa as an Assistant Professor in 1974. He brought back to Iowa his worldly experiences and cutting edge molecular techniques that fueled his research program on African trypanosomes for the next 37 years.
Among his 255 publications are landmark papers such as a 1974 Cell paper with Pieter Weinsick and David Hogness on chromosome mapping in the fruit fly Drosophila, his 1980 Nature paper reporting the sequence of the yeast 2 micron plasmid, and his groundbreaking contributions to the genomics of trypanosomes in three Nature and Science papers. Twenty years after first reading Scientific American articles in Africa, he wrote a 1985 review article in the same journal on “How the African Trypanosome Changes Its Coat.”
Professor Donelson served as a research mentor of 29 PhD students and 23 postdoctoral fellows. Bruce Citron, Director, Laboratory of Molecular Biology, Professor of Molecular Medicine, USF College of Medicine states “He truly cared about his students and the graduate program and provided just the right amount of guidance – not too much and not too little.” Kent Hill, Professor, Department of Microbiology, Immunology and Molecular Genetics, UCLA reports that Professor Donelson was “always available for discussion and continuously works to identify opportunities for enriching the training experience of the people in his lab or classroom.” Dr. Shiyong Li, Associate Professor, Emory University School of Medicine, states “Professor Donelson had a remarkable ability to phrase constructive criticism in a way that was encouraging, leaving me wanting to work harder and better”. Nearly all of his trainees have gone on to prominent positions in academia and industry; many are leaders in molecular parasitology and molecular biology, thereby carrying on his legacy.
At the time of his University of Iowa retirement in 2011, Dr. Louis Miller of the National Institutes of Allergy and Infectious Diseases wrote a commendation to Dr. Donelson stating, “you were always the leader in the world in molecular biology of Trypanosomes.” In 2012, John surprised us by being offered and accepting an appointment as a visiting professor at the Federal University of Rio Grand do Norte in Brazil, where he teaches biochemistry and conducts genomic research on leishmania.
Dr. Donelson will be honored at the 2016 Distinguished Mentor Award Celebration and Lecture from 3 to 5 p.m., Thursday, Sept. 1, in 1110A MERF.