Genetics Pioneer Was UConn Professor, Mentor

Posted: February 1, 2012 at 4:41 am

Arthur Chovnick, a professor at the University of Connecticut, was a pioneer in the field of genetics whose influence was felt across the field of molecular genetics and biology.

"Arthur did something that has effectively jump-started enormous strides in the genetics of higher organisms," said Hal Krider, a former professor of genetics at UConn. "He was probably the most recognized, under-honored geneticist, but people with Nobel prizes would call and ask him for advice."

Chovnick, 84, of Chaplin, died Sept. 5.

One anecdote from his life reflected Chovnick's stature in the world of genetics. When his daughter Lisa was taking a biology course, she learned about Watson and Crick, who discovered the structure of DNA, but when the home phone rang one day and a caller identified himself as Francis Crick, Lisa hung up on him. "Quit joking," she told the Nobel Prize winner the next time he called.

Later that night, Arthur Chovnick picked up the phone himself. "Hello, Francis," he said.

"People of that stature were available to Arthur all the time," said Krider. "Everybody knew him. He was very, very well known and inordinately highly regarded."

Chovnick conducted experiments on drosophila melanogaster, a relative of the humble fruit fly that, rather than being a laboratory pest, is a valuable scientific specimen used for years in genetics research. First used to study heredity, the fly is now used in the study of disease as scientists search for the genes responsible for Alzheimer's or Parkinson's or Huntington's.

Drosophila genes are nearly identical to human genes. They also reproduce very quickly, meaning mutations may be studied in weeks rather than months or years. They have only four chromosomes. Even better, no groups picket against drosophila experimentation as they do against higher-order species.

"It is easy to grow and manipulate, and they have genes like us," said Christine Rushlow, a Chovnick-trained geneticist who is a professor at New York University. "We use them as a model system to see how genes work. We share so many genes."

Chovnick, known for pioneering work in gene organization and in demonstrating the way traits cross over within a gene, could look at events that were rare and re-create them.

Chovnick, born in Brooklyn, N.Y., on Aug. 2, 1927, grew up in Queens, where he graduated from Jackson High School in 1944. He was the oldest of four children born to Fannie and Herman Chovnick, who had both emigrated from Russia. He attended Indiana University for a year before joining the U.S. Navy, where he served on a hospital ship. After he was discharged, he returned to Indiana and obtained his undergraduate degree in 1949 and his master's in 1951. He got a doctorate in genetics from Ohio State University two years later, and obtained a grant from the National Institutes of Health that continued until 1995, one of the longest continuous NIH grants.

He spent two years at the University of Connecticut doing research and teaching before going to the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory in Long Island, first as assistant director, then as director. In 1962, he returned to UConn as a professor, where he remained until he retired in 1994. He was a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and a founding member of the Connecticut Academy of Science and Engineering.

Chovnick was revered as a mentor as well as a teacher, his colleagues said.

"He left you alone, except he would always teach or help you," Rushlow said. "He was a great analytical thinker, which he could do in his head because he was so experienced."

He helped his students design experiments that would create a certain type of drosophila — with pink eyes for example, or missing a wing — to help them create their own mutations. "You see the consequences to the fly, and what it is doing to the fly," Rushlow said.

Chovnick also did early work on cloning, providing a fly with unusual chromosomes for other scientists to study. He studied how to regulate the activity of genes.

"When things go wrong because genes are out of control, you get disease," Rowlson said. "He was at the forefront, a leader in the genetics field, and famous for the work he had done." He also understood how genes recombine and how a new DNA sequence is created with potentially new effects.

Today, as scientists intensify their search for the genetic cause of disease, Chovnick's work is significant.

"He was a seminal character in the transition from classical genetics to modern genetic cloning and gene manipulation," said Krider, his former colleague.

"He was a very careful and highly creative thinker with a keenly analytical mind," said Arthur Hilliker, a professor at York University in Toronto, who studied under and later collaborated with Chovnick.

Originally posted here:
Genetics Pioneer Was UConn Professor, Mentor

Related Post

Comments are closed.