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Vol. LVII, No. 14
July 15, 2005
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Former NIDDK Lab Chief Buck Mourned
By Jane DeMouy

Dr. John Bonner Buck, a man possessed of a curious and creative mind, must have lived a wondrous life. Fascinated by fireflies from an early age, he observed them, studied them and pursued them, from his backyard in Towson, Md., to Woods Hole, Mass., to Caribbean islands, Southeast Asia and Papua New Guinea. He became a world expert in bioluminescence who put the study of physiological synchronicity on the scientific map — for humans as well as insects.

Buck recently passed away at his home in Sykesville, Md., at 92. During his 40-year tenure at NIH, he was chief of the Laboratory of Physical Biology from 1962 to 1974; when the lab divided in 1975, Buck headed the section on comparative physiology. He retired as scientist emeritus in 1985.

"He really got the study of synchrony started," says Frank Hanson, once a postdoc under Buck and now a professor of biological sciences at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. "Nobody in the Western world was interested," says Hanson. "He saw that synchrony in fireflies was communication, and a means to understanding the physiological basis of behavior." Many were content to describe what they observed, publish and walk away, says Hanson, but not Buck, who was full of questions: Why does this species do it this way, and that another? What happens when you put them together? What happens on the receiving end? "He never stopped questioning," says Hanson.

"Synchronization in insects was more or less considered mythical until Buck went to work on it," adds Jim Case, professor of marine science at the University of California at Santa Barbara, and a colleague at the Marine Biological Laboratories at Woods Hole, where the Bucks summered and studied. According to colleagues, Buck "never stopped thinking."

"He was a good old-fashioned scientist," agrees Bill Hagins, another NIDDK colleague. In 1945, when Buck arrived at the National Institute of Arthritis and Metabolic Diseases, now NIDDK, NIH was still small, with very catholic interests, says Hagins. "He was one of the guys who built it up." In the days before molecular studies, Buck presided over a lab where curiosity and multiplicity ruled. Lab members worked on vision, photosynthesis, muscle physiology and insect respiration, as well as bioluminescence, which had some researchers looking for firefly larvae (glowworms) on Rockville golf courses in the dead of winter. "Luckily, we never had to bail anybody out of jail," laughs Hagins.

"John knew what everybody was doing, was very knowledgeable and interested in talking to you. That's what was so beautiful about that lab," adds NIDDK's Shuko Yoshikami.

Field trips in pursuit of data on firefly behavior punctuated Buck's career. He went first to Jamaica, and then to Thailand and Borneo, where Buck and his wife, Elisabeth, recorded their first sight of the fabled firefly displays that naturalists had reported seeing in vegetation along tidal rivers as early as 1680. The Bucks' paper said that as they got closer to the dark shoreline, pale patches of light emerged as trees "spangled with hundreds of tiny lights pulsing steadily in a rapid rhythm of about 2 per second." Amazing as the display must have been, the Bucks were not too stunned to activate a photometer-chart recorder they had built and made the first electronic recording of firefly synchrony.

In 1969, funded by the National Science Foundation, Buck headed an expedition to Papua New Guinea to study both terrestrial and coastal bioluminescence. These and other studies led to knowledge of the great diversity of synchronic behavior in fireflies. Each species develops and maintains different codes for light display, which identify them to their own kind and to potential mates. Musicians seem to have the capacity to match the rapid rhythms of fireflies, some of which can flash 2, 3 or 5 times a second. But even unmusical humans synchronize instinctively, says Case. When one or two people in a crowd begin to clap in rhythm, "it takes about one and half cycles for a group to synchronize its clapping," Hanson adds.

Buck's field recordings raised interesting questions about how multiple organisms with brains of only a few thousand cells could coordinate such rapid responses, and provoked studies of neural circuitry and its control of muscles. Buck's work brought attention to the importance of rhythmic neural processes to human bodily functions, as well as awareness of a variety of voluntary rhythms and synchrony in human beings.

"He was a quiet, thoughtful man who could easily think outside the box," says Ed Rall, who was NIDDK scientific director during Buck's tenure. A Quaker who helped found the Bethesda Friends' Meeting, Buck was known for his pacifist beliefs. With other Friends, he opposed the Vietnam war by maintaining a weekly silent vigil on a Bethesda street corner. Described as "a gentle man" who rarely showed anger, Buck was full of energy, a man who could keep his younger colleagues running during late night field trips after a full day's work in the lab.

Known as a highly ethical person who commanded the respect of his colleagues, Buck and his wife practiced an easy hospitality: they maintained a "floating seminar" at their home for colleagues, and postdocs were routinely invited to dinner. He was also an avid racing sailor at Woods Hole and he and Elisabeth enjoyed playing sextets with his four children, each of whom played a different instrument.

Buck got his Ph.D. at Johns Hopkins in 1937, was a National Research Council fellow at California Institute of Technology, and taught briefly at the University of Rochester before coming to NIH. He was a visiting professor at several institutions, was a member of the NRC, the American Society of Zoologists and the Society of General Physiology. Besides many summers of teaching and research at Woods Hole, Buck was at first a trustee, then emeritus and a life member of that corporation.

Memorial contributions may be made to the John and Elisabeth Buck Scholarship, Marine Biological Laboratories, Woods Hole, MA 02543.

NIH Grantees, Intramural Scientist Win Early Career Awards

Eleven NIH grantees and one intramural scientist — Dr. Marisela Morales of the National Institute on Drug Abuse — were among 58 researchers who received the 2004 Presidential Early Career Awards for Scientists and Engineers. The PECASE award is the nation's highest honor for professionals at the outset of their independent research careers.

Morales is a tenure-track investigator in the cellular neurophysiology section, Molecular Neurobiology Branch. "Work by my group at NIDA uses a combination of molecular biology and high-resolution microscopy to identify and study brain neuronal networks that participate in the biology of various drugs of abuse," she said. "Results from these studies provide key insights on the location and type of brain cells that are affected by drugs of abuse."

The grantees who won the award include: Luis R. Garcia, Texas A&M University; Catherine M. Gordon, Boston Children's Hospital; Joanna C. Jen, University of California, Los Angeles; Yuhong Jiang, Harvard University; Neil L. Kelleher, University of Illinois; Tejvir S. Khurana, University of Pennsylvania; Robin F. Krimm, University of Louisville; Suneeta Krishnan, University of California, San Francisco; Kenneth D. Mandl, Boston Children's Hospital; Teresa A. Nicolson, Oregon Health and Science University; and Brenda A. Schulman, St. Jude Children's Research Hospital.

The awards were established in 1976 to honor the most promising researchers in the nation within their fields. Eight federal departments and agencies annually nominate scientists and engineers at the start of their careers. Winners get up to 5 years of funding to further their research.

NIH Receives White Oak Award

NIH received the White Oak Award for Excellence in Forest Conservation and Land Development from the Maryland Department of Natural Resources (DNR) at HHS's 4th annual Environmental Workshop, held recently at Lister Hill Auditorium. The award recognizes efforts made prior to the enactment of any formal laws requiring forest conservation, but that have been designed with Forest Conservation Act goals and objectives in mind. Presenting the award on behalf of the Maryland DNR are (from l) Todd Erickson, regional forester, and Marian Honesczy, state forest conservation program coordinator. Receiving the award on behalf of NIH are Lynn Mueller (third from l), NIH landscape architect, and Capt. Edward Pfister (r), environmental compliance officer, both of the Office of Research Facilities and Development Operations.

Pinn Gains Another 'First' at U.Va.

Dr. Vivian Pinn, director of the Office of Research on Women's Health, delivered the keynote address at the University of Virginia's 176th commencement exercises on May 23, becoming the first African-American female ever to do so. Pinn, the only African American and only woman in the U.Va. Medical School class of 1967, recalled "the many challenges to my own sanity and passion for my medical studies during the sociopolitical era of the 1960s." She told the nearly 5,000 graduates, accompanied by some 25,000 family members and guests, "I learned then, and have confirmed as years go by, that we can either dwell in the smallness of slights or difficulties, or rejoice in the larger meanings of life's experiences, and build a positive, constructive, and worldly view of barriers we have faced, and the satisfaction of having overcome them.Don't let difficulties make you small, a complaining spectator of life — but rather let a vision for your own life make you great, a vital participant of life."

Spring 2005 Senior Leadership Program

The Office of Strategic Management and Planning's NIH Training Center recently graduated the 2005 class of the Senior Leadership Program. Participants hailed from the Clinical Center, the National Cancer Institute, the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases and the Office of the Director. They included (front row, from l) Dorothy Foellmer, Chitra Krishnamurti, Jake Liang, Janet Dudrick, Valerie Prenger; second row (from l) Eser Tolunay, Dave Folio, Karen Kaczorowski, Francie Kitzmiller, Carolyn Bell; third row (from l) Steve Wank, Alice Mascette, Robert Mekelberry, Susan Persons, Gwenyth Wallen, Kevin Callahan; back row (from l) Robert DeChristoforo, Robert Pike, Phil Lenowitz, Ken Buetow, Marilyn Jackson, Joseph Jenkins, John Hanover, Lenora Johnson. Not shown are Dan Camerini-Otero, Anita Linde and Melanie Keller.

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