A pioneer in molecular biology, John Donelson, PhD, professor emeritus of biochemistry, has led a renowned career all the more remarkable for his outstanding record of mentoring.
In 37 years of mentorship at the University of Iowa, the giant steps Donelson has taken to inspire others—undergraduate and graduate students, postdoctoral fellows, and junior faculty—to achieve their dreams will be traced for many generations.
“He is a pure scientist with a love of biology and especially biochemistry, and his enthusiasm for science is contagious,” notes a graduate of the Medical Scientist Training Program who conducted his PhD research thesis with Donelson in the Department of Biochemistry.
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.
Donelson’s passion for science has its roots in a one-room Iowa schoolhouse, where, at a young age, he developed the scientific curiosity that would propel his career as a world leader in molecular parasitology. He went on to earn a bachelor’s in biophysics from Iowa State University, and then joined the American Peace Corps to teach in Africa, where he saw firsthand the havoc wrought by infectious diseases—an experience that would shape the direction of his research in the years to follow. His doctoral work included contributions to Nobel Laureate Fred Sanger’s second Nobel Prize for DNA sequencing, and his postdoctoral research pioneered studies in molecular biology. Recruited to the University of Iowa as an assistant professor of biochemistry, he came armed with worldly experience and advanced molecular techniques that fueled his internationally lauded program on African trypanosomes, the parasitic protozoa commonly associated with sleeping sickness, a disease that threatens millions of people in 36 countries in sub-Saharan Africa.
Students have flocked to his laboratory at the University of Iowa to receive expert training at the forefront of science. 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.
His colleagues commented that Donelson’s commitment to research served as inspiration: “To many of us he represented the vanguard of a whole new type of biology.” Another: “It was in the Donelson laboratory that I really fell in love with research and molecular biology.”
His commitment is known to be tenacious, even fearless, a quality one observer attributes to Donelson’s experiences as a Smoke Jumper for the U.S. Forest Service, including having to surmount difficulty with a parachute opening on a training jump. So, too, in the Donelson laboratory: “There were no qualms about tackling difficult problems. He downplayed doubts and instead focused on doing the best that could be done.”
His former trainees note his continuing mentorship and career guidance, even at a distance, after they have established independent research and faculty careers elsewhere: “John’s influence on my career persisted for many years in spite of the distance. With his support I was able to get one of my first grants that allowed me to start my own lab. I also went on to take his advice when I became a Howard Hughes International Research Fellow.”
A remarkable feature of Donelson’s career is his record of promoting, guiding, and empowering research program development and leadership among young faculty: “He took care to make sure I was given plenty of opportunity to attract students to my lab. He also lent a sympathetic ear without sugarcoating his own thoughts—something that I as an assistant professor found very helpful.”
Another quote best describes the effect Donelson has had on so many—and his ongoing impact.
“Now that I run my own laboratory, I not only still use research strategies that I learned in the Donelson laboratory but I also still often ask myself these questions: What would John Donelson do in this situation? How would he approach this problem?”