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Meet the Deans: Roger Chalkley

Roger Chalkley, Senior Associate Dean for Biomedical Research, Education and Training, Professor of Molecular Physiology and Biophysics, Professor of Medical Education & Administration (VU)

By Lorena Infante Lara

Who’s behind the veil at Vanderbilt Basic Sciences?

Welcome to the second part of a series designed to help you get to know the VBS leadership. I met up with Roger Chalkley, professor of Molecular Physiology and Biophysics, professor of Medical Education & Administration, and Senior Associate Dean for Biomedical Research Education and Training (BRET), and asked him some questions about him and his career.

Part 1: For the interview with Associate Dean of Faculty Development Alyssa Hasty, click here.
Part 3: For the interview with Associate Dean for Research Chuck Sanders, click here.

Answers have been edited for clarity and brevity.


How long have you been at Vanderbilt?

(Laughs) 33 years.

What’s your biggest scientific accomplishment to date?

There are several things. The first thing is that we did the early work on cross linking histones to DNA, which then formed the underlying basis behind the ChIP assays. The second thing that we did was that we were the first to identify histone modifications. We were the first to show how histones distribute at the time of replication, and we were the first to show that estradiol – when exposed to endometrial tissue – is actually exported into the nucleus in a highly chemically specific fashion. So in other words, if you put other steroids – like testosterone, for instance – onto the endometrial tissue, they don’t go to the nucleus. We were able to show that it’s only estradiol that gets transported, and we subsequently identified the transporters in charge of that. Other than that, we didn’t do much. Poked around.

What are you proudest of? Doesn’t have to be the same as your biggest scientific accomplishment.

I suppose I am actually very proud of one of the earliest papers that I ever published, which was the one that showed that there were actually five types of histones. It has been cited on the order of about ten thousand times. Just in terms of the science, in and of itself, the paper is fundamental, but it’s also good to be recognized.

The other thing that I’m proud of is the role I played in creating the concept of an umbrella-type first-year education process. Vanderbilt was actually the second in the country to do that. To give context to that achievement: the idea of doing this evolved from a series of conversations that I had with a gentleman of the name of John Perkins. He came from Southwestern University. We sort of created the idea in talking with one another and decided we’d both try and implement this, but, you know, we had to get leadership on board, had to get the individual departments on board, and – worst of all – had to get the faculty on board. So he was just a little bit ahead of me and the Southwestern program started one year before we did. So we were second in the nation to do it, but I would argue that it was a joint effort between me and John. So that’s the other thing I’m proud of because it impacted graduate education across the country as a whole, but it also impacted graduate education at Vanderbilt. There are very few faculty remaining who remember what graduate education was like before the Interdisciplinary Graduate Program (IGP) got started in 1992.

One more thing that I’ve done that I think is important goes along with the IGP. When we started the IGP, there had been very few African American individuals who graduated with a Ph.D. The diversity was basically zero. This year, we’re up to 126 Ph.D.’s awarded to individuals from various diverse backgrounds. That came to a considerable degree thanks to funding for the Initiative for Maximizing Student Diversity (IMSD), which provides some support for that. The attrition is also way down for minority students – it’s like 5%. And so, to be able to bring such diversity in a relatively short order was something that we are happy about. The IMSD got going by about 2000, and its current director Linda [Sealy] joined the IMSD as a co-PI by about 2012. Starting that whole venture pretty much put us ahead of the game compared to other institutions.

What is the scope of your job as Senior Associate Dean of BRET?

Basically, I am responsible for keeping an eye on the graduate programs, the admissions programs (particularly the IGP and QCB, the Quantitative and Chemical Biology program), and the training grants. Without the training grant support that we have at the moment, we really would not have a graduate program anywhere near the size that we have. I support the training grants by helping put them together, helping identify the background data that we need in order to do well in our applications, playing a role in various national societies so other institutions know what we’re doing (which helps with training grant reviews), and so on.

The Office of Outcomes Research (OOR) was formally started in 2006 or 2007, but the Office of Career Development, which of course evolved out of the BRET Office, has actually been keeping data from almost as soon as the IGP started. We didn’t keep records that were nearly as detailed as the ones kept by the OOR – for example, we didn’t know very much about what happened to people after they left – but we had to have that information to a degree for the training grants, so keeping the numbers together has always been important for us.

Keeping those data allowed us to look back and look at the GREs: how did students who took the GRE do in their first year? What was their productivity as grad students? Where did they go after grad school? We had a suspicion that GREs didn’t seem to tell us much about individuals, but it was just anecdotal. When we looked into the data, though, the anecdote became real.

What is your ultimate career goal?

My ultimate career goal would be to help make Vanderbilt a place that was without bias, without any differentiation in terms of background – be it racial, ethnic, or economic – so that we can be an institution with very high mentoring standards, a place where good science takes place, and a place where people can be happy doing good science. Are we there yet? No, but it’s certainly very different here from what it was 15 years ago, when the faculty was mostly white males.

What did you want to be when you grew up?

You have to understand that I was born in a very small village under what most people would describe as extreme poverty. I lived with my mother and grandparents, and we had nothing. There was no running water in the house I lived in. You had to get water from a pump in the backyard. In fact, I didn’t even see a flushing toilet until I was 9 years old. There was no electricity. There was a gas stove – that was the only heat in the house. If you had to get washed, you’d have to boil some water on the gas stove and put it in a bowl. There were no books in the house. Nobody in the family had been to school beyond 6thgrade, so there was nobody there to ask questions about what people did. I think the only careers I knew about in my first decade of life were probably some sort of manual labor or being a police officer (I found out about the latter after I once filled up a public toilet with cement and blocked it up – and was duly chased by a local cop. I also found out at that time that I was a better runner than he was). So there was no reason for me to have any notion of becoming anything in particular. My only concern at the time was that my mother was happy with me. She and I were pretty close. And that was it!

I found out early on I liked reading, so then public libraries became valuable. Fairly early on, I got interested in things growing out in the woods and in the fields – particularly birds – but I really didn’t get interested in science until I was maybe about 12-13. I was lucky enough to get to a grammar school, which was very hard for a poor kid in England to get to at that time. It was there and with a lot of reading that I began to find out about science.

Tell me a story from your childhood.

I had a wonderful bird egg collection that was destroyed by my younger sister when I was 13. When you collect eggs, you blow them out so that there’s nothing to rot on the inside, it’s just the egg shell. My sister is 10 years younger than me, so one day she was pretending to cook by cracking the eggs. She went through over 100 different species, some of which had been quite difficult to get – a lot of climbing involved. And she just smashed the whole thing as part of her game. Pissed me off to no end.

What do you like to do outside of the lab?

I like to read. I’ll read anything from poetry to history to novels. Climbing has also been a major interest of mine, primarily because it’s outdoors. I have no interest in climbing indoors, although I do have a climbing gym at home. I also do some cooking and quite a bit of gardening to provide for fresh veggies for the cooking.

What’s your best cooking advice?

Go with your heart – don’t follow a recipe. It drives Linda (my wife) crazy.