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November 2008 Issue

Jerry Lingrel, PhD, professor of molecular genetics, biochemistry and microbiology, works with Tara Rindler, a second-year PhD student.
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Longtime UC Research Professor Recognized for 'Changing Lives'

Published November 2008

With a smile playing at his lips, Jerry Lingrel, PhD, does his best to fend off any compliments thrown his way—particularly when they concern the mentoring talents he has displayed over almost half a century in UC’s department of molecular genetics, biochemistry and microbiology.

But Lingrel might find his latest accolade particularly hard to shrug off—he was selected as the 2008 winner of UC’s Excellence in Doctoral Mentoring Award in recognition of his efforts in molding future scientists and researchers.

It’s the latest honor in a career that has already seen him win the George Rieveschl Award for Distinguished Scientific Research (1978), UC Distinguished Research Professor (1991) and UC’s Daniel Drake Award (2002).

Lingrel isn’t one to tout his own achievements, and that’s putting it mildly. Sitting in a conference room in the Cardiovascular Center, casually clad in khakis and a denim shirt, he laughingly tells an interviewer, “I feel sorry for you—this is going to be a boring article.”

So leave it to his former students to say why he deserves this latest honor.

“Jerry changed my life,” wrote Eric Schon, PhD, in a letter supporting his award nomination. Schon, who is Lewis P. Rowland Professor of Neurology at the Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons, had worked at Procter & Gamble for 10 years before deciding to enter graduate school at UC to study molecular biology in 1978.

“Jerry’s enthusiasm for science was (and is) unbounded, infectious, and yet humble,” Schon added. “How could you not get excited about a problem after Jerry described it?”

Schon wrote that Lingrel was “demanding yet tolerant of rookie mistakes, intellectually rigorous but not arrogant, encouraging but not demeaning, watchful but not overbearing.”

Finally, Schon wrote, Lingrel taught him how to be a mentor “if and when the time came that I would be in his shoes.”

“And today I am in his shoes, and I try to run my lab, and treat the people in it, in the same way that Jerry taught me. Is this not the very definition of ‘pass it forward?’ Is this not what we all look for in a great mentor?”

In Lingrel’s view, you can set up mentoring committees or schedule regular meetings—both of which he has done—but mentoring is primarily role-modeling.

“You set up an atmosphere, you set up a way of operating, and they learn from that. And you’re still there helping them every time—if they have a question, you’re there to help them,” he says. “There’s example and the appropriate environment—that’s probably what mentoring is.”

As James Stringer, PhD, a fellow faculty member, observed in his nomination letter, Lingrel’s contributions to graduate student training extend far beyond the laboratory.

He was one of the founding members of the developmental biology graduate program and serves as a preceptor in the programs supported by the cardiovascular biology training grant and the pulmonary and cardiovascular development training grant.

Ten of his former students hold professorships, and another eight are senior scientists in companies. Several more are working as scientists in government agencies.

Another former student who wrote in support of his nomination was Anil Menon, PhD, now a professor in Lingrel’s department.

“The fact that Anil chose to take a faculty position here illustrates the respect and admiration Jerry elicits from his pupils,” Stringer wrote in his nomination letter. In Menon’s words, Lingrel “in some mysterious way … simultaneously challenges and simultaneously supports students. Even after his students graduate, Jerry takes a keen interest in their work and stays in touch with them encouraging them to be excellent as scholars and scientists.”

Lingrel grew up on a farm in northern Ohio and received his bachelor’s degree from Otterbein College and his PhD in biochemistry from Ohio State University.

He did postdoctoral work on hemoglobin synthesis at the California Institute of Technology before coming to UC in 1962.

His research on hemoglobin continued at UC where he identified and isolated the globin mRNA, which was the first one ever isolated from mammalian cells.

As chair of molecular genetics, biochemistry and microbiology, he built his department to No. 1 in National Institutes of Health grant holdings among Ohio institutions and led a presentation that brought a National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute “Program of Excellence in Molecular Biology” to Cincinnati.

Lingrel recently stepped down as department chair but still begins his work day at 7 a.m., writing letters, reading papers, visiting the lab and serving as an associate editor of the Journal of Biological Chemistry —“the largest and most cited journal in the world,” he says.

When not working he enjoys gardening at his home in suburban Cincinnati, particularly raising orchids. And are there any parallels between nurturing orchids and nurturing future scientists?

“No,” he says, the smile returning. “Orchids don’t talk back!”

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