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Rick Nelson

Posted Sep. 21, 2012

Rick NelsonRick Nelson, Ph.D., professor in the Plant Biology Division

Rick Nelson knows life is a lot like golf. It's all about timing, not taking yourself too seriously and being willing to spend a little time in the rough.

After receiving his doctoral degree in biology from the University of Illinois and completing postdoctoral work at Washington University in St. Louis, Mo., Nelson came to the Noble Research Institute as a professor of plant biology.

Nearly 24 years later, he's still honing his craft - more in the greenhouse and occasionally on the green. His discoveries at Noble range from deciphering the functions of virus proteins to understanding plant disease defense mechanisms against these pathogens - each success as sweet as sinking a 40-foot putt. Here, Nelson discusses his first job, his biggest lessons and how a few hours on the course helped prepare him for a lifetime in the laboratory.

How would you describe your work to a stranger?
A portion of my work is to study how viruses move in plants and methods to prevent this from happening. Viruses are everywhere, threatening every major crop with disease. If we can prevent viruses from moving within a plant, we can block disease. Surprisingly, we can also use viruses to study how plant genes function. The other portion of my research utilizes viruses as delivery systems to study the function of plant genes during virus movement and cell wall development, the latter to improve biofuel production.

What is the most exciting aspect of your work?
Here at the Noble Research Institute, there's a potential of making a new discovery every day. You never know when another scientist will walk in and say "This is what we've been waiting for." It is exciting to be in an area where the potential exists every day of finding something no one has ever seen before, something that will help agricultural producers in the United States and the world.

What inspired you to pursue a career in science?
I had taken plant biology courses as an undergraduate at Washington University and several of my professors, such as Virginia Walbot and Joe Varner, were wonderful inspirations for pursuing this area for my career. I think interning at Monsanto during my third year of undergraduate school also helped direct my career. That was a great opportunity and shaped my perception of agricultural research in the private sector and its relationship to public research.

What experiences shaped your early career?
The patience and experience of my graduate school mentor, Jim Harper, allowed me to explore plant biology research not only in the laboratory, but also in the field.

While doing my postdoctoral research with Roger Beachy, I was fortunate enough to be involved in one of the first projects in the country where genetically engineered plants were being produced and tested in the field, in this case having virus resistance. It was an exciting time.

How were you introduced to golf?
My first job was mowing my neighbor's yard on Saturdays when I was in my early teens. Mr. Haemerle was retired and also a very good golfer. Although I had been to driving ranges, he gave me my first lessons. He taught me golf etiquette and that it isn't always the person who hits the ball the farthest that scores the best. He was in his 70s, and he could barely hit the ball (bad sciatic nerve), but it was straight as an arrow and he was phenomenal on the green. I lost to him often, but I learned many traits that play into my life today. I always liked the scenery on a golf course, the greenness of it. That probably had some influence on my interest in plants.

What has been the most valuable lesson of the game?
Learning patience and persistence on the course, watching this old retired man whip me when I was hitting the ball close to twice as far as he could muster, was a great lesson for a research science career. Experiments often fail due to technical problems or simply due to a lack of adequate understanding of how to approach the study. You have to move beyond those failures if you are to succeed in research science.

How is virology like golf?
It's both frustrating and rewarding. Science, like golf, is all about controlling your variables. It can be full of frustrations and technical problems. Technique is everything, and if you can't perfect your swing or your methods, you won't be successful.

How often do you play golf these days?
I don't get much of a chance to play anymore and I miss it. My golfing friends at the Noble Research Institute still ask me to join them. I will get back to the course with my friends soon, but for now I still apply those lessons learned on the course to my work.

What's one of your favorite memories on the golf course?
The Noble Research Institute used to have a tournament every year, and one year I was able to play with the late Sam Noble, who was then on the Board of Trustees. He would always make sure everyone putted out - in other words, finished what they started and did it with integrity. His leadership came out even on the golf course. I always admired that about him.

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