Leroy Hood: Discovery Science  pg. 4

By his senior year, his science teacher, Cliff Olson, asked him to take over the biology classes, which he did, gleaning his lesson plans from issues of Scientific American.

“I enjoyed getting the sophomores excited about biology,” Hood says, “and more importantly, I learned enough to begin to see the enormous potential of biology in the future. I remember being fascinated by one article on the structure of DNA, discovered just three years earlier in 1953. I came away convinced I wanted to go into biology.”

Hood had been leaning heavily toward a liberal arts college in Minnesota. But Olson convinced him to attend his alma mater, the California Institute of Technology (Caltech), because of its elite faculty and students and its outstanding research reputation. After graduation in 1960, Hood went on to medical school at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Md., to get more background in human biology.

“I found it staggering how little we really understood about human biology,” he says. “I remember asking a pediatric intern, a resident, and then a visiting professor, in that order, what caused diarrhea. Each could list organisms and diseases that did so, but could not speak to the pathophysiological mechanisms. It was a descriptive view of biology that was quite different from what I was used to.”

Having developed a keen interest in immunology, Hood returned to Caltech to work with biology professor William Dreyer on theories of antibody diversity. Their work advanced the idea—radical at the time—that antibody chains were encoded by two distinct genes, which became physically rearranged during maturation of antibody-producing immune cells. The theory helped explain the tremendous adaptability of the body’s immune system to a wide range of infectious assaults.

“By my second year of graduate school, I was giving lectures at universities and national meetings,” Hood says. “The general reaction of the scientific community to the two gene/one polypeptide hypothesis was skepticism and even reprobation. I realized for the first time how threatening new ideas are to many scientists.”

Dreyer’s mentorship was pivotal, inspiring conceptual thinking and creativity in his protégé, and providing the two pieces of advice that have colored all of Hood’s subsequent scientific efforts: One, always practice biology at the leading edge, and two, if you really want to change the field, invent new technologies to push the frontiers of biological knowledge.

Hood and Logan married while he was in graduate school. After earning a Ph.D. in biochemistry, Hood served a three-year stint in the Public Health Service, pursuing his research on antibody diversity at the Immunology Branch of the National Cancer Institute. But by far his most memorable experiences during those years, he says, were the births of his son, Eran, and his daughter, Marqui.

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