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The Road Less Traveled

Posted Dec. 26, 2012

Set for retirement, Richard Dixon reflects on his unexpected journey from England to the Noble Research Institute
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Rick Dixon, D. Phil.
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The semester Richard Dixon's world changed, he was sitting in a lecture hall during his third year of college at the University of Oxford. He had already decided that he wanted a profession devoted to either biology or chemistry. Even as a boy he had tinkered with chemistry sets and had the burns on his bedroom carpet to show for it. But that year at Oxford, Dixon enrolled in a plant biochemistry class where one life-altering idea suddenly hit him: All the really cool chemistry happens in plants.

The class was taught by Professor Vernon Butt, whom Dixon had never met before - nor had contact with since he graduated from Oxford. But of all the lectures Butt gave that semester in 1971, nothing struck Dixon as much as the talk on lignin. Lignin is the molecule that allows plants to stand taller than buildings. It makes wood woody and is one of the most abundant biological substances on Earth.

Dixon left the class smitten with lignin. "Lignin is the most complicated molecule you can think of," he said. "It looks like chicken wire." He thought he could spend a career learning its secrets.

That career, which eventually brought Dixon to Noble Research Institute, enters a new phase in January when Dixon will retire as the first and only director of the organization's Plant Biology Division. He leaves behind one of the most respected plant research centers in the world, credited with some of the major discoveries about plant biochemistry in a generation.

From Oxford to Oklahoma
When the idea of coming to the Noble Research Institute was first presented to Dixon in 1987, he wasn't entirely sure he could locate Oklahoma on a map, much less Ardmore.

Dixon had grown up in central England in Burton-on-Trent - which he describes as "the Milwaukee of England" for its famous breweries - where his father worked as an engineer. As a teen, he excelled in school, but he also loved the arts and in his youth envisioned himself one day becoming a professor of literature or music. But science became his passion. He was accepted into Oxford and ended up staying to earn his doctoral degree, along the way hearing about lignin.

In the random encounters that often shape the course of a lifetime, a postdoctoral fellow named Chris Lamb joined Oxford about six months before Dixon was to leave. To Dixon, Lamb was one of the smartest, most engaging scientists he had ever met. The two men would eventually collaborate on research projects that spanned four decades and resulted in more than 100 co-published research papers.

After Dixon finished his doctoral degree at Oxford, he took a job teaching at the University of London's Royal Holloway College in Surrey. During a 1987 sabbatical, Dixon visited Lamb in the United States, where his friend had become director of plant biology at the Salk Institute in La Jolla, Calif. One afternoon, the two men sat eating lunch by the sea, their feet in a tidal pool, when Dixon confided that he was ready for a career change. Back in England, he felt his career was beginning to stagnate.

Lamb mentioned that he was advising the Noble Research Institute in establishing a plant biology program. Would Dixon be interested? "I think I've actually heard of the Noble Research Institute," Dixon recalls telling his friend. (Dixon had edited a book on plant cell culture; one of the chapters was submitted by a Noble scientist.) "But who would be crazy enough to run a plant biology division that doesn't exist?"

Who indeed.

Building a division
From their first visit to Ardmore, Dixon and his wife were sold. Among other things, they loved the fact that Ardmore seemed like a place they could raise children, affording a house with land enough to grow whatever they fancied. He decided to see how serious the Noble leadership was about establishing the new division and doing things right.

He faxed a request saying he would take the job if he could hire 40 people and establish a postdoctoral study program with the Salk Institute. Oh, and he needed a new building. The response came back almost immediately: No problem.

Dixon planned to stay five years. Five years became 10, then 10 became 25, despite attempts by universities - including his alma mater, Oxford - to lure him away.

Dixon's personal research focused on lignin and the use of plants to produce natural products such as anthocyanins, tannins and isoflavonoids. These compounds are often associated with health benefits for human conditions such as cardiovascular disease, cancer, diabetes, Alzheimer's disease and obesity, as well as improved animal health and performance.

Among his most notable discoveries are genes involved in the synthesis of lignin. The ability to manipulate these genes has opened the door to producing more digestible crops for livestock and more efficient plants for biofuel production.

Dianna Bowles of the University of York in England said that from the time she met Dixon in graduate school, he has been intellectually absorbed in the chemical properties of plants. "Rick has an immense understanding of plant biochemistry and all the many benefits plants can contribute to society," she said in an email. "He has an integrity, generosity and openness of thought that is rare these days."

Along the way, he helped guide one of the most respected plant biology research centers in the world, and, in 2007, was inducted into the National Academy of Sciences, one of the most prestigious honors a scientist can achieve.

Dixon is visibly proud of the Plant Biology Division he helped nurture and guide. The division has grown to more than 110 scientists and support staff, who conduct fundamental biochemical, genetic and genomic plant research. Much of the research of the division is designed to benefit the value and productivity of forage legumes, such as alfalfa. "We've taken it from nothing to something to which we can recruit people from all over the world to come here," he said. "The profile now is international."

The soundtrack of life
Though retiring from Noble, Dixon will continue his research. He will join the faculty of the University of North Texas in Denton, and he also anticipates trying to squeeze in more time for personal pursuits. He has a British love of walking and will spend what spare time he has hiking near his home in the Arbuckle Mountains, swimming at the UNT campus and tending to the more than 800 cactus plants that occupy his garage-sized greenhouse. (He has always been fascinated with cacti because, he says, they thrive even when neglected and are so long lived "they can be your friends for a lifetime.") His two children are grown and have moved away, so he and his wife also look forward to seeing the few parts of the world Dixon has not already visited.

And there will be music. Dixon has a collection of more than 2,500 records - actual records, not CDs or iTunes - that he listens to on a stereo system that cost as much as an average sedan. Music is to Dixon as lignin is to plants. It's a fundamental component of his life. His daughter Lois said she and her younger brother, Arthur, learned as children not to ask their father a casual question about a particular composition. "You'd be sucked into that room for hours," she said with a laugh.

Perhaps, Dixon mused, his next endeavor will be to write a book on music. He always feels the need to rack up accomplishments, describing himself as ambitious "but not to the point of being obnoxious. I'm very aware of what I don't know." He's content with what he's done so far and the name he has earned in scientific circles, but he's still driven to do more.

Earlier this year, the journal Planta devoted an issue to Dixon as a tribute on the occasion of his 60th birthday. As he perused the chapters, he was shocked to see a contribution from Vernon Butt, the man who, without knowing it, had shaped the course of Dixon's career. Nearly 40 years have passed, but Professor Butt's lesson remains. More than ever, Dixon believes that all the cool chemistry happens in plants.

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