Where are you from?
Many places! I was born in a town in Germany called Wuppertal. I remember as a kid going to the library and picking out books about Canada. It sparked a desire to come here. When I was 16, I met an exchange student from Toronto. I latched onto him and ended up coming to Toronto to visit him. That was my first exposure to Canada. I went north, rented a canoe and went into Algonquin Park. I was mesmerized by the wilderness, the nature, the untouched environment. I came from a town that was heavily polluted at the time. I wanted to get away from that and Canada seemed like the right place to go. I went back to Germany and became a carpenter. I built staircases and sailboats but one of my drivers was always to come back to this continent. The second time I came to Canada I didn’t stay long and I ended up in Montana. I was living in Butte when the Anaconda Copper Mine shut down. Then it was difficult to find a job as a carpenter, so I called my dad and asked him if he would help me go to university. He said he would, so I went to the University of Montana. I took all the classes I could in chemistry, physics and math. When I went to graduate school at Oregon State University, I decided to go into biophysics and that’s where I got exposed to analytical ultracentrifugation. At the time, I really got into computing and biophysics and I’ve stuck with it ever since. The instrument they had was really old and I asked my adviser if we could digitize the instrument so it could be read by a computer. My adviser said ‘Yeah, that’s an interesting thought, but I paid a guy $50,000 and he proved it couldn’t be done.’ So, I asked him if he could give me $1,000 to try to prove him wrong and he went for it. I found a couple of people to help me with it and together we built a device that managed to digitize the instrument. After that I had my niche. I digitized all the instruments up and down the west coast and made a lot of money as a graduate student. With that, I bought three houses in Missoula and, when I got out of college, I had not a penny of debt. Then I got a post-doc position at the University of Texas at the medical school in San Antonio.
When did you come to the U of L and what do you do here?
In 2017, I was at a conference in Glasgow that Trushar (Patel) also attended. I’ve known Trushar for many years and when we got together at that conference, he implored me to apply for this Canada 150 Chair. I said ‘Trushar, leave me alone. I have other things to do.’ He said ‘No, you need to apply for this.’ I said ‘When is it due?’ He said ‘On Monday.’ It was Thursday. I said ‘Trushar, tomorrow I’m flying home. When am I supposed to do this?’ ‘Just write it on the plane,’ he said. So, I wrote it on the plane, polished it on Sunday and sent it off on Monday. The thing that convinced me, besides Trushar bugging the heck out of me, was the fact that Lethbridge is so close to Missoula. I arrived at the U of L in the summer of 2018 and I’m cross-appointed at the University of Montana. Two of my people in Montana do all the programming and the theoretical work and here we have the instruments and run all the experiments and collect the data and train students on how to run the machine, how to design the experiments and do the actual lab work.
What’s the best part of your job?
The thing that I really love is the ability to travel to different conferences and meet my friends in all parts of the world and interact with other people on science problems and questions and work together with them to solve big problems, everybody contributing and having cross-disciplinary interactions. It keeps science very interesting for me.
What’s one thing most people don’t know about you?
One of the things we’re starting to do is to get Indigenous high school students into laboratories here. I’m working with Leroy Little Bear on a project to bring high school students into the labs here next summer to give them a leg up into STEM fields.