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The end of an era of teaching alongside research: A tribute to Thomas Brock

The title and the image might seem a departure from the usual offering from TEFS. To a degree this is correct, but there is a purpose in highlighting the essential link between research and teaching at university level, and how that link is being broken. The fracture of this vital cog of education at a high level impacts all students in a way that is damaging perceptions of a university and its purpose. Performance management, REF funding, and the resulting ‘teaching only’ contracts reported by Times Higher Education this week, have set us on a dangerous course. This post is by way of a tribute to the late researcher and teacher, Thomas Brock, who passed away earlier this month. His story is a lesson in how research and teaching have more value when in combination. He carried out ground-breaking research and teaching in another golden era of discovery. Every microbiologist since 1970 knows who he is through his textbook ‘Biology of Microorganisms’. In the midst of the current COVID-19 crisis, we might also remember it was his discoveries in the 1960s, when working with students, that made possible the rapid PCR test used for detecting the COVID-19 Coronavirus, that has been taken by millions across the globe. His legacy is assured by both endeavours. All students from all backgrounds should hear from the best researchers, and Brock should not become a relic of the past.

The book highlighted on my bookshelf was written by the late Thomas Brock in 1970 and is the first edition. As quoted, it was unashamedly written for students and derived from his teaching. Brock sadly died at the age of 94 on the 4th of April 2021 and this week brought many tributes. Importantly, he was a teacher and innovative researcher at the same time. In that sense, he might seem to be a relic of another time in terms of current UK thinking. He worked in an era with a very different ethos to that of today. To many, his influence as a microbiologist persists in our everyday lives as we combat COVID-19. Working with an undergraduate student in 1968, he discovered the heat loving bacteria that unlocked the ability to quickly carry out gene amplification using the polymerase chain reaction (PCR) that is a cornerstone of most of our modern biomedical advances. Indeed, many millions have had the COVID PCR test in the last year. While most tributes focussed on his research discoveries, less acknowledged was his contribution to teaching. Yet, every graduate and student of microbiology across the world knows of him through his textbook, ‘Biology of Microorganisms’. Now in its 16th edition with multiple authors, it continues to impact generations of scientists by arousing interest and wonderment at how nature works. I was one of those in 1973 reading the first edition from 1970 in the library. I could not afford to buy one. It was an accessible text in a modern style, and I preferred it to the less accessible recommended third edition of ‘General Microbiology’ by Roger Stanier and co-authors. This had evolved from the text ‘The Microbial World’ by the same authors in 1957.

The context of Brock’s time.

Born in 1926, Brock came from a low-income family in Ohio. His family fell upon hard times in 1941 with the early death of his father. Brock was fifteen when war was declared in 1941 and he took on various odd jobs whilst at high school. After that, he enlisted in the US Navy and went into training. This was good timing as the war was soon to end. He was then very fortunate benefit, alongside other ex-service personnel, from the Servicemen's Readjustment Act of 1944, commonly known as the ‘G.I. Bill’. It was signed by Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1944 and guaranteed college fees and “the right to receive a monthly living allowance while pursuing their studies”. This was a pivotal time for many to move up the social ladder through education. It enabled the less advantaged young Brock to attend Ohio State University to study Botany. He then went on to complete a PhD in mycology in 1952. During several years working for the Upjohn Company, he became self-taught in the emerging discipline of ‘Molecular Biology’. His career in academia took him from Department of Biology at Western Reserve University (1957) to Bacteriology at Indiana University (1960) and Bacteriology at the University of Wisconsin (1971), where he remained and became the Head of Department in 1979.

Teaching came first.

The young Brock started out at a time of great endeavour and hope that was soon to become a ‘golden age’ of discovery in the biological sciences. He was right in the middle of a rapidly advancing science and his textbook demonstrated how he followed the advances alongside teaching students at Indiana University. He had an extraordinary grasp of what was happening around him and passed this to his students. The forward to the first edition makes it clear Brock wrote the whole 737-page text himself (with his wife, Louise, preparing the excellent figures and drawings). Something that would not happen today with single authors replaced by multiple authored texts. Who would be allowed the time?

Hidden in the archives is acknowledgement from his peers at the American Society for Microbiology (ASM) in the form of the 1988 ‘Carski Award for Undergraduate Education’ “for outstanding teaching of microbiology to undergraduate students and for encouraging them to subsequent achievement” (see American Institute of Biological Sciences citation).

A golden age beckoned.

The use of microorganisms as model organisms to uncover fundamental mechanisms in cells was advancing fast when Brock graduated. This accelerated quickly after the discovery of the structure of DNA in 1953. At that pivotal time, Brock was working on antibiotics with the Upjohn company. Like others he had to learn the subject as it developed. The discovery of the DNA structure spawned the discipline of ‘Molecular Biology’ and Microbiology followed this up very quickly. This fused ideas in genetics, physiology, biochemistry, and chemistry into one endeavour and attracted some of the finest minds of the time who needed answers to basic questions: How is DNA replicated? How are genes arranged? How is the DNA encoded to produce cells and structures? How is DNA transcribed or translated into proteins? How does this link to cellular physiology and function? How does it evolve?

Microorganisms that grow quickly in the laboratory provided a convenient platform for delving into these processes. The idea that the polymer deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA), and its related product, ribonucleic acid (RNA), was the basis of all life forms and processes lay at the core of that effort. There were many awards for scientists to come.

The contribution of Brock to discovery.

After moving to Indiana University in 1960, Brock sought an explanation for how microorganisms can live at very high temperatures. The hot springs of Yellowstone National Park were crying out for an investigation of their microbial life. This is essentially curiosity driven science that could have yielded little, yet nature always leads us in the right direction through our instinct and curiosity. With some Federal funding from the National Science Foundation (NSF), Brock was able to proceed. He did this while he was teaching and writing a textbook and his review of ‘Life at high temperatures’ in 1968 in the journal Science laid out his observations. This is often his most cited paper, but the discovery of a bacterium Thermus aquaticus (abbreviated to Taq later) and its properties is the more significant. Working with an undergraduate student, the aptly named Hudson Freeze, their paper in 1969 demonstrated what this organism could do (Thomas D. Brock and Hudson Freeze ‘Thermus aquaticus gen. n. and sp. n., a Nonsporulating Extreme Thermophile’ Journal of Bacteriology, 1969, 98(1), 289–297). It would have profound benefits, but only seen many years later. Nature had revealed another secret for us to use for good, but Brock and Freeze were not to know quite what.

As an aside the same issue of Science has an article by James D Carroll ‘The process values of university research’ that is a critique of research funding driven by ‘produced’ values’ and not the value of the ‘process’ of science. It seems this is an old argument. The irony of a critique of “The basic justification given for federal support of university research has been the potential or immediate value of the information produced”, immediately after Brock’s NSF funded observations, would not have escaped the reader’s attention.

Nobel prizes followed the golden discoveries ‘for achievements that have conferred the greatest benefit to humankind’.

It comes as a surprise to nearly all people, who mostly have anthropocentric perceptions of the world, that  so many Nobel Prizes have been awarded for work on microorganisms. This is perhaps expected for advances in combatting infectious disease. But in Chemistry, it comes as more of a surprise. I made a point of telling all first-year students about the Nobel history of Microbiology. In Medicine and Physiology, there have been one hundred and eleven Nobel prizes. Prior to World War II, there were eight for work with microorganisms. Since then, there have been twenty-six involving work directly on or using microorganisms as a model. However, of the one hundred and twelve Chemistry prizes, there were three pre-World War II and seventeen since the war. One was for an invention that derived much of its success from the original work of Brock.

A feature of the more recent prizes has been debate about who the prize winners should be. There is often little doubt about the significance of a discovery or invention, but the role of individuals building incrementally upon the work of others and their teams has become blurred. It may be time for a fuller acknowledgement of how others contribute.

The invention of PCR ‘on the shoulders of giants’.

In his 1996 text ‘Making PCR: A Story of Biotechnology’, Paul Rabinow revealed the murky world of commercial interests that accompanied the invention of PCR by Kary Mullis at the Cetus Corporation in 1983. This is another story but it puts some of the events described below in context.

In a letter to Robert Hooke about his discoveries in optics in February 1675, Isaac Newton observed that “If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants”. The adoption of movable type printing in Europe in 1450 meant that Newton had been able to see the work of many before him, including Hooke but also Johannes Kepler and Tycho Brahe in particular. It was a reminder that acknowledgement and citation of earlier work should lie at the core of scientific integrity to this day.

The invention of PCR is no exception, and a vast amount of scientific endeavour had accumulated to help the invention along. The story started with Brock and was followed by Alice Chien and co-workers in Cincinnati who isolated the Taq DNA polymerase in 1976 and noted its optimum temperature was 80oC (Alice Chien, David B. Edgar, and John M. Trela ‘Deoxyribonucleic acid polymerase from the extreme thermophile Thermus aquaticus’ Journal of Bacteriology, 1976, 127 (3),1550-1557)

This was higher than the growth optimum of the organism itself at 70oC noted by Brock and Freeze and it was a crucial discovery. Chien postulated that the DNA polymerase could be used to make DNA from single-stranded RNA that had been unfolded at that temperature; something not achieved to date and a key observation.

Then came the late Kary Mullis (who passed away in 2019) who built upon the earlier work of Kjell Kleppe and colleagues in 1970, whose paper ‘Studies on polynucleotides: XCVI. Repair replication of short synthetic DNA's as catalyzed by DNA polymerases’ (Journal of Molecular Biology (1971) 56 (2) 341-361) set the scene. It is noteworthy that Kleppe worked at the same time as Brock in the University of Wisconsin, but in a different department. One wonders if they ever discussed their work.

Mullis first used the PCR principle to detect sequence variations associated with sickle cell disease in the 1985 paper, ‘Enzymatic amplification of beta-globin genomic sequences and restriction site analysis for diagnosis of sickle cell anemia’ (RK Saiki, S Scharf, F Faloona, KB Mullis, GT Horn, HA Erlich, N Arnheim Science 1985, 230, (4732),1350-1354). They cited earlier unpublished methods and did not cite Kleppe’s work. This was followed by more being revealed in 1986 with ‘Specific Enzymatic Amplification of DNA In Vitro: The Polymerase Chain Reaction’ (K. Mullis, F. Faloona, S. Scharf, R. Saiki, G. Horn, and H. Erlich. Cold Spring Harb Symp Quant Biol 1986. 51: 263-273). But this was a cumbersome method that required the addition of fresh DNA polymerase at each step of the temperature cycle.

Then the penny drops.

For Mullis, the penny only dropped in 1988 when he found out from the work of Chien and colleagues that the Taq polymerase worked best at 80oC and also when the double strands of DNA would be separated to single strands to use as a template ('Primer-directed enzymatic amplification of DNA with a thermostable DNA polymerase' Science 1988, 239 (4839), 487-491).

This meant that his earlier method could be speeded up with no need to add fresh enzyme every cycle. It was a major breakthrough in the analysis of genes. For those of us using it since, such as me and those in my laboratory, the amplification of DNA prior to sequencing was a dream that had suddenly become a miracle sent by Nature to help us understand. What we know about all microbes, including viruses, expanded fast. It made us the first humans in history who could proactively combat a pandemic.

The two strands of research had merged and Mullis was awarded the Nobel prize in Chemistry in 1993, jointly with Michael Smith for different advances in the ‘site directed mutagenesis’ of genes. For Mullis, it was a prize for innovation and invention and not for discovery. Others had worked hard to uncover the natural process at play.

Brock in a modern UK context.

What Brock did then would be almost impossible in today’s modern UK university. In his time, UK universities would have been little different to those in the USA. There were no metrics or Research Excellence Framework (REF) to plunder his confidence. Performance management did exist but in a very stand-off manner through peer review. Administrators certainly did not control the ‘targets’ or the agenda. Looking back at the career of Brock, it poses the question if he could have survived the performance management of today’s UK university. Would he have been allowed to pursue his work in the same way? One thing is sure, his combination of teaching and research is becoming a thing of the past in many quarters. It is almost certain that Brock would have been dissuaded from teaching to concentrate on publishing papers and getting more NSF grants. Alternatively, he might have been moved onto a ‘teaching only’ contract and his discoveries killed at birth. This is a more recent phenomenon in the UK and it is gaining ground fast.

This is no idle fear. A report in Times Higher Education in January used HESA statistics to show that there had been a major shift of staff onto ‘teaching only’ contracts in the last five years (Times Higher Education 19th January 2021 ‘Teaching-only contracts: 20,000 moved on to terms in five years’). Again this week they reported that this trend had accelerated, with some universities putting more than two-thirds of their staff onto ‘teaching only’ contracts (Times Higher Education 26th April 2021 ‘Some UK universities saw teaching contract jump as REF loomed’). The current REF 2021 exercise caused this to happen. This time all staff have to be included if they have contracts that expect research. Moving those deemed less productive in this respect into ‘teaching only’ is simply a way of gaming the system. That idea could only be dreamt up by someone detached from understanding research and how it works. Essentially the same people who think they can buy in staff and demand that they deliver research papers, impact, and breakthroughs as if they were ordering from Amazon. The result is inevitable.

My observation for some years has been that the management in research intensive universities was beginning to view teaching as a ‘trivial pursuit’. It seems this may now become entrenched in how universities view themselves, staff, and students. It is a very dangerous path to be going down (see TEFS 29th June 2018 ‘Research and Teaching: The price of researchers not teaching’).

The devastating impact of REF and its predecessors.

Back in 1986, the ‘research selectivity exercise’ of the Universities Funding Council was seen as a response to a growing recognition that government funding for research resources in our universities should be selectively distributed in a transparent way (see ‘Funding selectivity, concentration and excellence - how good is the UK's research?’ HEPI 2014 for an overview). Those who designed it could be forgiven for not fully realising the devil they had released. It soon evolved into the Research Assessment Exercise (RAE) in 1992 and then the current REF from 2014. At each step, university managements tightened their stranglehold on academics to perform in an exercise that they viewed as printing money as the outcome determined funding. Teaching started to become of lesser importance, as long as the numbers of students held up and fees rolled in.

My personal view is that every member of university academic staff must teach. This is for their own thinking and education as much as that of the students. The only consideration should be how much teaching balances with an ongoing research workload. Research only or teaching only staff must not become the default options in a university. Every student must get an opportunity to meet and engage with those doing research. This must apply for students from all backgrounds. We need more Brocks now more than ever.

Since first posting, it appears Thomas Brock was honoured with an NSF sponsored ‘Golden Goose Award’ in 2013 for his research back in the 1960s. The award is for researchers “whose seemingly obscure, federally-funded research had led to major breakthroughs”. This was certainly the case.

Mike Larkin, retired from Queen's University Belfast after 37 years teaching Microbiology, Biochemistry and Genetics. He has served on the Senate and Finance and planning committee of a Russell Group University.


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