Last Lectures

Passion for the Unknown

By Randall S. Barton

For Prof. Maryanne McClellan [biology 1982–2015] it was never about whether her students went on to a career in biology; a Reed education set them up for doing all kinds of things.

“It’s about the passion,” she says. “You start out with curiosity, which can be random and unfocused. But if somebody’s able to help you see how to be disciplined, you can turn that into disciplined passion, and then you can just do it for yourself.”

Prof. McClellan, the Laurens N. Ruben Professor of Biology, has been a fan of the biology department’s teaching paradigm since she interviewed for the job 33 years ago.

“It’s in the lab associated with the course that you learn the tools that scientists use and the way they ask questions in that field,” she says. “When you partner up with a faculty member, discuss your ideas, and develop a project that may or may not succeed—that’s where you start to get energized and excited about science.”

As an undergraduate at Auburn University, McClellan’s innate interest in cell biology progressed into an investigation of how metabolism is organized in the cells. Then, during her graduate career at Colorado State, she began studying hormones—specifically how female sex steroid synthesis is compartmentalized in different subcellular structures within ovarian cells. Her postdoctoral work focused on the relationships between the specific receptors through which female sex steroids act and their target cells in the female reproductive tract.

McClellan was researching estrogen action in the Brenner lab at Oregon Regional Primate Research Center when she saw the advertisement for a faculty position in cell biology at Reed. In a twist of fate, her postdoctoral mentor, a Reed chemistry parent, explained Reed’s special academic program.

She discovered it to be a place where students take ownership of amazing ideas and then go to work in the laboratory, solving the technical problems that spring up.

“Being willing to accept some failures and defeats is what makes or breaks you as a scientist,” McClellan says. “If everything works perfectly the first time, it’s guaranteed not to repeat. You learn way more from things that don’t go well, because in science that’s often telling you where to go next or how to modify your thesis.”

Eric Kofoed ’99, a graduate student in molecular and cell biology at the UC Berkeley, pinpoints McClellan’s introductory cellular biology lecture as the most transformational moment in his career.

“I remember being shocked and intrigued at the beauty and perfection of complex cellular processes built over time from relatively simple molecules,” he says. “The complexity of life and its processes continue to astound me.”

On the eve of her retirement, McClellan remembers that Reed students made teaching so much fun with their energy and eagerness.

“If you ever said ‘I don’t know’ to a question somebody asked, the students were all over it,” she recalls.  “A day or so later somebody would have found a paper or a lead, and they’d want to sit and chat about it. They taught me that they’re going to do most of the work, but they have to be encouraged to know that this is the frontier, this question is out there.”

McClellan concedes that being a Reed student isn’t easy.

“Working as hard as you can possibly muster during those four years gives you an intellectual advantage,” she says. “The world doesn’t run on the latte-sipping crowd. Reedies are great at being part of the world that’s running things, and I love that about them.”