Convocation 2011

Dr. Lynn Riddiford
Vollum Award for Distinguished Accomplishment in Science and Technology
2011 recipient

Riddiford photo
Dr. Lynn M. Riddiford

First, I want to thank President Diver and Reed College for this unexpected award. I am deeply honored and consider myself to be very fortunate to be included in the list of distinguished Vollum awardees. My research over the years however would not have been possible without a great group of students, both undergraduate and graduate students, and postdoctoral scholars who helped in this research. I thank them as well.

This is also a big day for you freshmen. It is the beginning of a new adventure to expand your mind and explore the many different paths that your life might take. There will be many challenges, which will be exciting to work through, and there will likely also be some disappointments. But in the end you should discover what really intrigues you so that you can begin to chart your life’s course.

My love for biology started early and was reinforced by two summers at the Jackson Laboratory in Bar Harbor, Maine, in a research program for high school students. When I entered college, I was eager to work in a lab. Yet no lab would take me in as a freshman or sophomore; more book learning was thought to be necessary.

In the fall of my junior year I went to a Radcliffe premed and science society meeting to hear a talk by Professor Carroll Williams who had just isolated the juvenile hormone of insects. He showed that this hormone prevented metamorphosis of the caterpillar to the moth. For insects to grow, they must shed their skin periodically. Juvenile hormone does not prevent this shedding process, but is necessary to ensure that the caterpillar remains a caterpillar, that is, it maintains the “status quo.” When growth is completed, juvenile hormone disappears and metamorphosis occurs. Not knowing much about hormones and metamorphosis, I asked whether this juvenile hormone would also prevent metamorphosis of tadpoles into frogs. Professor Williams answered that he did not know, and asked if would I like to try to find out. I jumped at the chance and went to his lab to do the experiments. Since his lab worked only with insects, I had to go out and catch my own tadpoles. I set these up in the lab and began treating them with juvenile hormone. It had no effect. Most tadpoles metamorphosed normally; a few died due to my inexperience with experimental procedures. This was clearly a naïve experiment when one looks at it in hindsight, but was exciting and fun at the time. Also, it led to a more productive project for my senior thesis looking for juvenile hormone activity in various mammalian tissues that resulted in a paper in Nature. More importantly, it began a lifelong quest for me to find out how juvenile hormone acts, although I did not work with insects again until after graduate school and postdoctoral experience in other areas and a stint of teaching in a small college.

I was lucky. That experience in college over 50 years ago launched me into an area of biology that continues to excite and challenge me today. I hope that each of you can find during your college years something equally exciting and challenging for your life. This is the time to explore. Keep an open mind. Enjoy the thrill of learning about new subjects and ideas. Don’t be afraid to ask questions and to seize on intriguing opportunities. Also create your own opportunities. For example, if something in a lecture or in the assigned reading excites you, go ask the professor how you can find out more about the subject. He or she will welcome your interest. The next four years hold the key to the rest of your life, and I urge you to make the most of them.

Thank you.