Dr. Gregory C. Phillips
2017 SIVB Lifetime Achievement Award Recipient




JUNE 11, 2017

(Author’s note:  The following text is based upon the acceptance speech given, however, certain points may have been overlooked and are now included here.  I hope my remarks will have some value to the younger generation of scientists in the society.)

My deepest thanks and appreciation go to the Board of Directors, the nominators, the supporting letter writers, and the sponsors for this award!  This is an honor that was not sought, but it is certainly appreciated!

When I heard that I was going to be awarded this honor, my first reaction was similar to that of Dr. Mike Kane, who received this award a few years ago, that is:  “Oops!  Is my lifetime up?”  My second reaction was: “I am floating on air!”  I am still floating on air.

I wish to recognize my wife Louise, my sister Barbara and brother-in-law Jim who are here in the audience representing my family.  The remainder of my remarks will have two themes:  Family, and Mentorship.  As family members, we are mentoring our siblings, our children, nieces and nephews to follow the better paths in life.  And as scientists, we mentor our students and colleagues to become the best professionals that they can be.  It is all about mentorship:  receiving it and giving it back.

I was a liberal arts major as an undergraduate.  My father was a scientist, and I did not want to compete against him as a scientist, so I went a different direction.  I avoided science classes, it all seemed to be memorization and regurgitation which did not engage me at all.  My favorite subject was epistemology, how do we know the things we think we know.  I went to college on a work-study program, and after a couple of bumpy starts and transfers, I ended up in a plant genetics lab on the opposite end of the same hall in the same building as my father.  Well, at least I was as far from my father as possible in that building!

That work-study position placed me in Dr. Glenn Collins’ lab at the University of Kentucky.  Glenn had a doctoral student at that time by the name of Dwight Tomes working on tobacco anther culture.  Dwight was my first true science mentor.  Here I was, a philosopher lost in a plant genetics lab, maybe they had to pay Dwight extra to do it!  But Dwight took the time to explain to me how he came up with his questions and hypotheses, how he designed his comparisons to dissect his questions, why he replicated, how he analyzed the data using statistics, how he drew his conclusions.  And from those tobacco anthers came … little haploid plants!  Once science was revealed to me as a means of discovery, as opposed to memorization, I became hooked.  I was engaged by the process of cells regenerating into whole plants.  Experimentation as discovery became my personal epistemology.  And here is Dwight, my first mentor, serving as President of SIVB this year, presenting this award to me, now how cool is that?

Of course, Dwight graduated and moved on, but as I finished my Bachelor of Arts degree, Glenn offered me a research assistantship to do a master’s in crop science, which I accepted.  I had to spend a semester or two catching up on science courses, but I was motivated by that time to suffer through.  Glenn’s lab environment was a wonderful place to learn.  He gave me more independence than I probably deserved.  His lab introduced me to diversity, both gender and ethnic diversity in the workplace.  Glenn was big on professional development activities and conferences.  Glenn continued to mentor me in doing the science, but he also had the task of transforming my liberal arts writing style into scientific style.  When the fourth and fifth drafts of a manuscript come back with more red ink than black print on every page, you know someone was working hard towards that goal.  Eventually Glenn made progress.

I started on a master’s degree with the thesis to be based upon red clover tissue culture.  We built a basal medium supportive of legume tissue culture.  We developed a somatic embryogenesis system for red clover.  We performed shoot-tip virus elimination from clonal parents of the Kenstar cultivar.  At this time Glenn told me that my committee thought I had done enough for the master’s if I wanted to take a semester to write it and defend it.  Or, if I wanted to continue on towards the PhD, then he would arrange for me to take a semester to visit another laboratory and then return and continue the clover dissertation research.  I was worried that I may not be able to complete a PhD, so what would happen then?  Glenn said, you would be in the same position as now, all you have to do is write and defend the thesis for the master’s.  That seemed safe enough.

So Glenn made arrangements for me to visit Oluf Gamborg, one of the biggest names in plant tissue culture in the world at that time.  Oluf ran the Prairie Regional Laboratory for NRCC in Saskatoon, Canada, which is now known as the Plant Biotechnology Institute of the NRCC.  Living in Canada as a visitor was a gentle introduction to another culture.  And there was tremendous intellectual capital at the lab, not just Gamborg but also Kao, Kartha, Constabel, Pelcher and others.  Glenn and Dwight had started their tissue culture activities largely based on reading the literature.  Spending three months at Prairie Regional Laboratory revealed that Glenn’s lab was doing things the correct way for the most part, which was very gratifying.  But I also picked up a number of new tricks while there, and Glenn had me reorganize his lab upon my return.

My dissertation research was focused on the rescue of interspecific hybrid immature embryos of red clover with other long-lived clover species.  In the process of recovering plants from the immature embryos, I discovered that the growth regulator treatments that promote shoot pole development from heart-stage immature zygotic embryos were similar to that for encouraging the shoot pole of somatic embryos.  So I now had a complete system for red clover tissue culture, from callus to cell suspensions and back again, a common developmental scheme for somatic embryogenesis and zygotic embryogenesis, micropropagation, and virus-elimination.  Before I left Glenn’s lab, I passed on my training to Wayne Parrott and Jude Grosser, each of whom have gone on to do tremendous things in their respective careers.

As a newly minted Ph.D., I took a faculty position at New Mexico State University where I had the flexibility to work on a variety of crops.  Within the year, I had hired John Hubstenberger as my lab manager and collaborator.  He had trained at the W. Alton Jones Cell Science Center.  John worked with me for 30 years at New Mexico State University and then at Arkansas State University.  The intellectual environment at New Mexico State University was considerable, with John Kemp, Champa Sengupta-Gopalan, Mary O’Connell, Glenn Kuehn and others.

During this time, I also became an editor for Plant Cell Reports under Oluf Gamborg, and an associate editor for In Vitro Plant under Trevor Thorpe.  Oluf taught me that scientific language needs to be simpler rather than more complex.  He explained that the English language is richer than many other languages, and it can be challenging to translate from English into other languages of our international collaborators.  Keep it simple.  Trevor was the consummate academician, insisting on careful documentation.  Eventually I became Editor-in-Chief for In Vitro Plant upon Trevor’s retirement.  I made many international friends as an editor.  I encourage younger scientists to get involved in the quality control process of manuscript review and journal editorship when the opportunity arises.  My experiences helped me to write across languages better, to focus on content and reproducibility.  Critical reading of the range of manuscripts that come into a journal provides a great overview of the discipline.

My father once told me that going from the assistant to associate professor ranks would be comparable to doing another dissertation in terms of what you learn about your research discipline.  I worked on numerous crop systems, from field crops to vegetables to ornamentals to woody plants to desert plants.  All the while I was particularly interested in applying developmental models across species and families.

I had some exceptional students at New Mexico State University:  Ming Cheng, Heather Gladfelter, Liz Hansen, and others.  I was always proud that Liz Hansen went from my lab to that of Nobel Laureate Phil Sharp at MIT upon my recommendation, my only direct interaction with a Nobel Laureate.  As much as I appreciated those gifted students, I was just as proud of many of my non-science students, such as Tina Garnenez.  Tina came to my lab through a community college Bridge program and spent two summers with us.  Tina eventually completed her master’s degree in public administration, and returned to the Navajo reservation to start a charter school in agriculture.  I was not very good at keeping up with all of the students that came through the lab, but John Hubstenberger was very good at that kind of thing.  When I left New Mexico State University, John informed me that we had hosted and trained 126 undergraduate and graduate students over 22 years.  Those students came from 19 countries as well as the U.S., some stayed in plant science, several went into biomedical science, and some went into non-science careers.

So I took a detour into administration at Arkansas State University, I became a dean!  I shouldn’t say it so negatively, it really was not too bad the first few years.  I was able to explore aspects of my personality that I otherwise would not have explored in all likelihood.  But I also felt the seduction of the dark side, and I eventually resigned after 8 years as a dean.  And the dark side is really seductive, even when you think you have bolstered yourself up to weather the storms you anticipate. Let me give you an example.  My wife actually was the first to point this out to me.  She said, “Greg, you have become a really good decision maker.”  Great!  I am making progress!  Then she said, “In fact, you are such a good decision maker, you no longer involve me in any decisions.”  Oops!  I never intended to cut out my partners, especially my number one partner.  I started to pay more attention to collaboration again.  More blatant aspects of the dark side are revealed by certain types of bosses.  First, they ask you to do something that you really are not sure about, but as time goes on, they start demanding that you do things that you know are not right.  So, I tried to do the right thing and I returned to the faculty.  I swore that I would not participate in campus politics again, and I kept that promise until recently, when we had a crooked chancellor in charge of the campus.  My anger got me to agree to run for vice-chair of the Faculty Senate, and then a week later the Chair resigned, and I ended up being the Chair of the Faculty Senate.  Crooked chancellor was mad that he had no leverage on me, he offered administrative advancement and I wanted none of that.  So I fought openly against the degradation of academic standards his initiatives had wrought, and his own vices brought him down.  Glad to be rid of him.

As a faculty member, I was provided a lab in the Arkansas BioSciences Institute housed at Arkansas State University.  Once again, I must note the intellectual environment there:  Carole Cramer, Elizabeth Hood, Maureen Dolan, Jay Xu, Brett Savary, Argelia Lorence, Fabricio Medina-Bolivar.  Being surrounded by bright, productive scientists I believe has made me better as a scientist, and I know it has made my students better.  As a dean, I had done some rice tissue culture and explored the BDS basal medium’s suitability for a wide range of plant species.  Another gifted student, Michael Greenway, developed the BABI version of the medium.

But, shortly after I returned to faculty, we unexpectedly lost our daughter.  That started a series of health issues that Louise and I both endured.  And soon after that, John Hubstenberger died.  He took his own life.  I wish I could have been a better friend to John at that time, but he had his own demons he had been battling for years.  Life interruptions never come at a good time.

As my health recovered, I decided that I wanted to do a research project that would represent a major advance if successful, and that would challenge me to use all of my scientific skills and capitalize on my particular skills.  I decided to revisit soybean androgenesis.  And it has been the greatest challenge of my career, everything I thought I had wanted and more.  Nevertheless, we believe we have been making progress even though we have not yet resolved this system.

As it happened, Martina Garda came to me for advice about graduate school, having just completed a master’s under Beth Hood.  Martina became interested in the soybean androgenesis project.  She believed in me, which was important to me at that time, and she had the persistence and drive to excel that I thought would be necessary for this project.  More than once I have turned to Martina and said, “You are making my brain hurt!”  She replies, “That is okay, you make my brain hurt, too!”  We are each doing a dissertation.  At other times, in response to perceived criticisms from our colleagues, I have told her, “Sometimes you have to believe in yourself.”  We believe in ourselves, tempered with reality checks from time to time.

Know your system.  John Hubstenberger was a great one for preliminary experiments to understand what we should expect to occur when the real experiment is conducted.

Observe carefully.

Follow the results.

Dogma and models inform, but recalcitrant systems may require thinking outside of the dogma.

In closing, I would like to point out that my lab group is my second family, although some of them seem to come and go too fast.  The SIVB has been the primary venue for my professional development during my career, and the SIVB members are my third family.  This award is an honor I will cherish for the remainder of my life, there is no other award that could mean as much to me personally.  Thank you!

Submitted by Greg Phillips