University of Texas at Austin

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Getting Started: Biologist John Wallingford

Biologist John Wallingford

Biologist John Wallingford

In the Getting Started series, Further Findings highlights the paths that some researchers at The University of Texas at Austin took to the laboratory, the library, the field—wherever they do their work.

Biologist John Wallingford’s early interest in science was nurtured by a teacher.

“Alice Kagi,” he says. “She was just fantastic. She was so enthusiastic and so excited.”

Wallingford, an associate professor in the Section of Molecular Cell and Developmental Biology at The University of Texas at Austin, had Kagi for seventh and 10th grades and for advanced placement biology in 12th grade.

“She’s the most inspiring teach I’ve ever known,” he said in an article in The Alcalde in 2006. “She had an unalloyed passion for biology and making her students love it. She wore her heart on her sleeve about the subject, and this was simply infectious.”

A developmental biologist, Wallingford studies embryonic development. He is a Howard Hughes Medical Institute Early Career Scientist.

Another teacher in high school helped Wallingford in an attempt to recreate experiments that would show how early amino acids formed from the primordial soup.

“We started to build the apparatus,” he said, “but those experiments are very, very hard because you have to get everything completely clean and there was a lot of washing with boric acid and things we couldn’t do in the high school lab. It was a pretty fun exercise.”

The enthusiasm of an adviser, Michael Danilchik, when Wallingford was an undergraduate at Wesleyan University in Middletown, Conn., also was infectious.

“First semester of sophomore year I took a development biology lab with him,” Wallingford said. “He was the same way (as Kagi), just craaazy enthusiastic. I’m a pretty excitable guy and he made it OK to be excited about science.”

In his work, Wallingford is interested in how embryos take shape, their morphogenesis. He examines how cells tell each other where to go and what to do.

His interest in the shape of things showed up in the summers he spent with his cousins who were shrimpers.

“I dragged a bunch of stuff up out of the sea during summers for years,” he says. “Maybe that has something to do with my morphogenesis bent. The shapes of things you pull out of the seas, especially when you’re a kid. Wow! What the hell is that? It was pretty fascinating.”

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