Biochemistry professor continues to follow passions at 100 years old
Professor emeritus of biochemistry Boyd O’Dell: “I think you should, in general even beyond science, you should pick a job or do what you have a real passion for. I think if you really are keenly interested in it you will be successful."
Feb. 06, 2017
Eighty years ago, professor emeritus of biochemistry Boyd O’Dell began taking classes at MU. Now 100 years old, O’Dell, who has made many discoveries and inspired generations of colleagues, can still be found in his office in Eckles Hall.
“I have some questions I really would like to answer, and I’d rather think about answering those questions than retiring,” O’Dell said.
O’Dell technically retired in 1988, but still does part-time research on campus.
In September, a celebration honoring the 40th anniversary of the biochemistry department served as an early 100th birthday party for O’Dell. In December, a plaque was unveiled, naming the bridge connecting Schweitzer Hall to the Schlundt Annex the Boyd O’Dell Bridge of Discovery.
“I hope the bridge will be a bridge to the future for all the students and progress will be made in research and learning,” O’Dell said at the unveiling.
Over the years, O’Dell has served as a mentor and a friend for many of his colleagues and students. Biochemistry professor Judy Wall first met O’Dell when she joined the MU faculty in 1978.
“He’s an incredible gentleman, very professional, a great scholar and a truly kind person,” Wall said.
Wall remembers when she and O’Dell were assigned to evaluate a graduate student’s grant proposal for a comprehensive exam. This was Wall’s first time evaluating this type of exam, and the only other female faculty member in the department did not attend their presentations.
“I was the sole female faculty member and, you know, a silly person who was in the process of thinking about impressing all of my peers and making sure they didn’t think I was an idiot at the evaluations,” Wall said. “So I was all set for getting this guy because I didn’t think his proposal was great.”
O’Dell went first. He discussed the importance of the problem the student had addressed and the strengths of the work before introducing criticism.
“That was a wonderful experience for me because I thought that’s exactly the way you should do it,” Wall said. “You have to earn the right to criticize by showing that you understand what’s going on and you have to earn the right to begin to make constructive suggestions. Dr. O’Dell had shown me that was the professional way of going about it.”
Wall uses this same approach anytime she has to evaluate anything in a similar manner.
“He didn’t realize, and I don’t think I realized at the time, that he was mentoring me, but he certainly was,” Wall said.
O’Dell decided to pursue education because he admired his teachers, who were his first role models.
“I always had an ambition to be a teacher,” O’Dell said. “What did a farm boy in Carroll County have as role models? There was two things that I can think of, teacher was the most obvious one, and veterinarian.”
O’Dell was born on a farm outside of Hale, Missouri, on Oct. 14, 1916. Becoming a veterinarian wasn’t an option he considered, because it wasn’t a financial possibility.
“My parents were just poor farmers, and they couldn’t help me,” he said. “I had to pave my way.”
The summer after he graduated high school, O’Dell took an examination to become a teacher.
“I passed all subjects with high scores except one, and that was pedagogy,” O’Dell said. “I didn’t even know what pedagogy was. I suppose it’s the art of teaching.”
That summer, O’Dell took classes at the University of Central Missouri, which was known as Warrensburg Teachers College at the time. He then began working in a one-room schoolhouse, where he taught first through eighth grade.
“It was kind of fun in retrospect,” O’Dell said. “And that was in the depths of the Depression, to be paid $50 a month was a very good job. A lot of people were unable to even find a job.”
Because he wanted to continue his education, O’Dell left the grade school after four years.
“After a few years I transferred to the university here and got jobs one way or another and was able to support myself,” he said.
He wanted to study bacteriology, but MU didn’t have a program, so O’Dell was advised to become a chemistry major.
“I worked for Dr. A.G. Hogan, who was my mentor for my Ph.D. At that time, he was interested in a vitamin that now is known as folic acid,” O’Dell said.
O’Dell went on to work for a pharmaceutical company in Detroit after receiving his degree. With the end of World War II, MU saw an increase in students and invited O’Dell back to become a professor.
“Coming back to Mizzou was kind of an easy choice because that was home. I’m a Missourian through and through,” O’Dell said.
O’Dell then studied the existence of unknown vitamins as an assistant professor.
“At that time, an assistant professor was really an assistant to the professor,” O’Dell said. “When I became a little further along and had the independence, I still followed the question of, are there still unknown vitamins?”
O’Dell went on to study the role of copper and zinc in the body. Among his discoveries was the revelation that copper deficiencies in animals can cause death through the rupture of the aorta, in the heart.
“The opportunity arose for me to go on a sabbatical to Australia,” O’Dell said. “And why would I want to go to Australia? If you’re interested in copper, it’s the place to go because much of the soil in Australia is copper-deficient.”
In Australia, O’Dell saw that copper deficiency in sheep can cause symptoms similar to Parkinson’s disease. He later observed the same results in rats.
“We became interested in zinc deficiency around the same time,” O’Dell said. “We found that zinc deficiency in animals stops growth and causes increased subject to disease. Diarrhea is a common complaint of zinc-deficient animals and children.”
He then discovered that phytic acid, which appears in plants such as soybeans and corn, can actually impact the way the body absorbs zinc.
“Scientists want to know why does zinc deficiency cause these signs and symptoms in humans and animals,” O’Dell said. “I’ve been interested in trying to solve that question for quite a number of years.”
O’Dell is currently researching the importance of zinc in maintaining calcium channels.
“If you think back of all the factors that a cell does, a cell divides, a cell secretes, contracts and carries messages,” O’Dell said. “All of this is dependent on a calcium channel, and if you take away zinc, the channel fails and you get all these symptoms. I think that that is the true, fundamental function of zinc — to maintain the calcium channel.”
O’Dell and Wall, a professor of biochemistry, have since worked together on a variety of committees and both taught biochemistry to first-year medical students.
“He was always incredibly prepared, just beautiful lectures and so absolutely timely,” Wall said. “He knew the literature and was just great.”
Another of O’Dell’s colleagues, professor emerita of biochemistry Grace Sun, also spoke of O’Dell’s role as a mentor.
“Right now, I’ve been retired for two years only and he’s been retired for many more years,” Sun said. “I would say that he’s a role model for me, and I wish I could do half as much like him.”
The two became friends in the ’80s, when a colleague Sun had met while working as a visiting professor in Taiwan came to MU to study with O’Dell.
O’Dell and his wife used to throw parties around the holidays where they would serve American foods, Sun said.
“We loved it because we have a lot of international students and he has always a group of them,” Sun said. “At the time, he was like a hub for the international students.”
Sun says O’Dell still interacts with colleagues and former research assistants by attending seminars and events on campus.
“I remember one time, this must have been four or five years ago, and he’s way over 90 and he wrote me an email,” Sun said. “He read a paper and then he said, ‘Hey, Grace, maybe we can work together to do something on this area.’ I was so shocked. I was really amazed how he must be reading a lot of papers at home or in his office.”
Now, O’Dell does experiments once or twice a week with cells that are grown in the Life Science Building.
“I asked to use the equipment and I think they decided they better volunteer to do some of the work rather than trust me,” O’Dell said with a laugh.
An undergraduate was assigned to help O’Dell grow and transfer the cells, Wall said.
“It came holiday time, and the undergraduate was coming up on holiday, and so instead of imposing on this woman, Boyd decided he would just teach himself how to culture the human tissue culture, and so he did it,” Wall said. “Every day he would come over and transfer his cells and work with his cells. He walks over form Eckles to the Life Sciences Center and back again and has learned how to do this. What a terrifically fearless person he is when it comes to science.”
O’Dell doesn’t just walk across campus; he also walks from his house every time he comes to do research.
“Most of my career I rode a bicycle to work,” O’Dell said. “I don’t have a car, and I don’t ride my bicycle anymore — that leaves walking. I like walking. I think it’s good exercise, and I need exercise.”
O’Dell’s daughter Ann, who lives in Columbia, helps drive him when he needs to go shopping and eats with him every week. O’Dell has a son, David, who lives in California, as well as four grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.
Outside of science, O’Dell’s hobbies include photography and bird-watching.
“I was always interested in bird-watching and nature work; I guess that might fall from the science,” O’Dell said. “Even when I was teaching at the grade school, I had projects for the kids where we’d collect plants.”
After 100 years, O’Dell recognizes the importance of lifelong learning and following one’s interests.
“I think you should, in general even beyond science, you should pick a job or do what you have a real passion for,” O’Dell said. “I think if you really are keenly interested in it you will be successful.”
Edited by Kyle LaHucik | email@example.com