Spring 2015 Newsletter | Biology | Marquette University



Dr. BRIAN UNSWORTH– MU Faculty from 1969 – 2004


Early Career

Dr. Brian UnsworthI received my undergraduate B.Sc Zoology Honours degree from London University in 1961, and earned a Ph.D. in Biochemistry from University College, London in the summer of 1965. My thesis was titled “Nitrogen metabolism in Xenopus laevis, the South African clawed toad.” The research was carried out using a stable isotope of nitrogen and required a mass spectrometer, and a high performance liquid chromatography system.

With the insouciance that can only come with youth I spurned the offer of a lectureship in Biochemistry, and applied for a project associate position in the Physiological Chemistry department at UW-Madison. The grass seemed greener on the other side of the pond. A faculty member at UCL, who hated America, had the prescience to advise me to get a Green Card to hedge my bets.

Fall of 1965 found me suitcase in hand in the office of Dr. Phillip Cohen. I was greeted with the news that there were more cows in Wisconsin than people. He recognized a town boy when he saw one. I spent two fruitful years researching the effects of thyroxine during tadpole metamorphosis, and also adjusting to the idioms inherent in our “common” language.

My thoughts turned to a future in academic research and teaching. My undergraduate studies left me with a fascination for Embryology, recently re-born as Developmental Biology.

I was awarded a NIH Postdoctoral Fellowship to study organ formation during mouse embryonic development. I joined Dr. Clifford Grobstein’s group in UCSD’s Biology Department in Fall 1967. There, I learned in vitro culture of mouse kidneys and other embryonic organ rudiments.

Dr. Grobstein, a member of the NSF site visit team that awarded a Center of Excellence grant to the biology department, highly recommended Marquette University.

MU’s department of Biology offered me a perfect balance between teaching and research. One semester teaching an undergraduate class, one semester teaching a graduate lecture, and one semester teaching a graduate level seminar. This sequence allowed for serious research without slighting teaching. The opportunity to form a Developmental Biology group, together with Drs. Hennen and Kumaran, proved irresistible. I joined the department in August 1969, and set up my research laboratory with generous departmental funds.


Research and Teaching at MU


My first order of business at Marquette was to establish a breeding mouse colony, and snare external funding for my research program. Three years of toil produced a NIH RO1 grant to investigate organogenesis during mammalian embryonic development. In the 1970’s funding agencies started to favor multidisciplinary research. I teamed with a neurobiologist and in 1975 we secured NIH 3 year funding to investigate biochemical parameters in aging rodent brain. From 1977 to 1988 I collaborated with Bob Fitts. Grants from the NIH and NASA supported our research into alterations in skeletal muscle with use and disuse.

Gary Mullin’s 1983 discovery of the polymerase chain reaction for the in vitro amplification of DNA hit molecular biology research like a ton of bricks. If a developmental biology grant did not include the use of reverse transcription PCR (RT-PCR) for quantitative measurement of RNA it was pretty well dead on arrival. In 1989 I received funding to assess the application of RT-PCR for quantitating differential gene activation.

Mentoring intellectually stimulating, motivated students is a gratifying aspect of academia. Here, I single out students from my laboratory for special mention. Carol Gossens, my first graduate student discovered that the Head of a Medical School department can be a super demanding boss, even if we did publish the results in Science. Phillip Caron, from Baaston, gained a MD/PhD from Columbia Physicians and Surgeons. Mike Shaw, a fiercely competitive squash player, earned a DDS and then an MD degree. Max McGee, realized that his unique talents would not be fulfilled in research. James Urban published a paper with me, won the Arts and Sciences gold medal, and earned a MD/PhD from the University of Chicago. James Russell, discovered that it is never too late to fire up the after burners. He earned a MD degree, accepted a residency at the Mayo Clinic, and then joined his father in a dermatology practice in town. Joseph DiMario, one of our undergraduates, completed a beautiful project for his M.S. degree. I counseled him to attend UC Berkley for a Ph.D. in muscle development. He pursued postdoctoral studies at Stanford University, and went on to become Professor and Dean at the School of Graduate and Postdoctoral Studies at Rosalind Frankiln University of Medicine and Science in Chicago. Michele Korb, my advisee as an undergraduate, had a passion for teaching. She completed her Ph.D. in our School of Education, during which time she also enthusiastically contributed to our Undergraduate Program. "Teach" as I called her, gained tenure at the California State University, East Bay, in teacher education.

This brief list would be incomplete without including Lynda (with a Y) Fleming, an undergraduate with a gift and love for research. As technician, she provided the enthusiasm needed to keep the laboratory humming. After she had her son I persuaded her that she deserved a guaranteed salary. She found employment at Mount Sinai, and thereby introduced me to Dr. Peter Lelkes, a gifted cell biologist/tissue engineer. Peter and I shared a productive collaboration and a warm friendship.

I sponsored Dr. Lelkes for an adjunct professorship in the department, and the faculty ratified the appointment. This enabled him to offer graduate level courses, and mentor students in our joint research projects.

My early research collaboration with Peter Lelkes incorporated cell culture and RT-PCR to investigate the assembly of neuro-endocrine organoids (adrenals) in vitro. Over the following ten years we were steadily funded by both NASA and the NIH. We used Rotating Wall Vessel (RWV) Bioreactors as an innovative In Vitro tool to study instructional cues and mechanisms involved in organogenesis. We were also involved in space research. We examined avian blood vessel formation in space, on the MIR. In separate studies we examined adrenal medullary function during space flight, and also under conditions of simulated micro-gravity in RWV’s.

The culmination of our work is summarized in four invited publications.



I found fulfillment and pleasure in the close interaction with undergraduates offered by a Development Laboratory course. Kathy Karrer was a participant, as we explored the vagaries inherent in accommodating the developmental time tables of various animal species to the classroom. There was even time for fun, like getting students’ to demonstrate the impossibility of breaking a hen’s egg shell with their hands (you needed to take the course!).

I later offered a lecture course in Human Embryology which emphasized teratology, congenital malformations, and metabolic disorders. In 1992 I assumed the Animal Development lecture course, and continued to do so until my retirement in 2004.
My longtime friend, Eugene Laczniak professor of Marketing, approached me with the idea that I should fill in my new found leisure time by offering a course in Bioethics. This appeared to be a natural for us, since he knew no biology and I knew no ethics. For three glorious semesters we taught in the University Honors Program administered by the College of Arts and Sciences. It was a most rewarding experience for us both, coming to an end because of unresolved scheduling problems.


Department Chair


In 1998, I inherited from Wally Fredricks a smoothly operating department. We continued to recruit exceptionally strong teaching/research faculty to fill tenure track lines. New hires were selected to provide expertise in underrepresented research areas. We took pride in a focused, collegial faculty with a commonly agreed purpose.

During my six years as Chair the department recruited seven assistant professors: Drs. James Anderson, Edward Blumenthal, Jane Dorweiler, Gale Schuman, Rosemary Stuart, David Wagner and Pinfen Yang. Instructors or part-time faculty were only hired for our summer program or to cover sabbaticals.

I believed that sincere listening and positive action could frequently head off potential troubles. I tried to shoulder as many of the administrative duties as possible, to avoid over burdening our hard working faculty. I transmitted the opinions of the faculty to the College and to the University administration. When called upon the needs of the College were held paramount. For instance when the Dean requested that senior faculty teach our introductory undergraduate courses, faculty members selflessly volunteered.

Faculty voted to rename the department, to better reflect our academic offerings. This lead to some good natured joshing encapsulate by the refrain, “The Chair of Biology is dead, long live the Chair of Biological Sciences!”

It was becoming increasingly apparent that our motivated faculty were hampered by space restrictions. The facilities, adequate to support biological research and teaching in the mid 1960’s, were now woefully inappropriate for science in the late 1990’s. We also lacked, a conference room large enough to accommodate faculty for meetings, a place where support staff could take breaks, and access to mail boxes without causing congestion in the departmental office.

In 1998, after a tour of WLS, the president convened a Space and Facilities Committee charging them to draw up a master plan for WLS. Lengthy discussion produced a two-pronged approach. Plan A was an entirely new building. Plan B was a band aid approach until Plan A could be realized.

Plan B was achieved through timely collaboration with Buildings and Grounds personnel and infrastructural issues were tackled.


Plan A revealed the unresolved devil in the details. Should it be a stand-alone building for biology? Should it include a state-of-the-art teaching facility shared with chemistry?

It is impossible for me to overstate my gratitude for the warmth extended to me by colleagues, and friends at the symposium and banquet held to mark my retirement. I shall always treasure the honor and privilege of representing a most remarkable group of faculty members.




Biological Sciences Department

Marquette University, Wehr Life Sciences
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P.O. Box 1881
Milwaukee, WI 53201-1881
(414) 288-7355