By: Ananya Sen
Every summer, the Carl R. Woese Undergraduate Research Scholar Program helps students conduct research on a full-time basis over the summer. The program is designed to inspire students to pursue important scientific questions. Importantly, the research scholars all come from different majors, but all of them are fascinated by biology. This trait reflects the journey of a founding donor to this program, Daniel Wolf, whose motivation to support the program is his personal connection with Carl Woese.
Wolf studied physics as an undergraduate and got a PhD in Zoology in 1976 following a developing interest in neurobiology. He took Woese's Molecular Genetics class as a beginning graduate student after Heinz Von Foerster, a professor of electrical engineering and biophysics, introduced the two. At the time, Wolf was a student with Von Foerster's Biological Computer Laboratory group. BCL emphasized cybernetics—a field that studies communication in animals and humans by bringing together concepts from engineering, science, and humanities.
“It was a lucky time to be at University of Illinois and around mentor faculty like Klaus Witz, who was a professor of mathematics, Heinz von Foerster, and Carl Woese,” Wolf said. “Carl’s class was unlike any other; his teaching approach was unique, and its impact lasted. He conveyed his interest in questions about the origin of the genetic code and its translation, their linked evolution and connection to organisms living in extreme environments. The students heard about topics related to Carl's discovery of Archaea years later.”
Wolf occasionally met with Woese to continue discussions that had started with that class. “We shared some interests and talked science, and more, during the rest of my time at Illinois and then on and off for many years. On a call or a visit to Illinois, Carl always made time and seemed to like having periodic contact with a former student still interested in his work long after school was out,” Wolf said.
In 2012, some years after last visiting with Woese at his lab, Wolf was invited to an Illinois Foundation event in California that featured a presentation about the IGB by its director, Gene Robinson. At the event, Wolf learned of Woese's illness when he met Robinson. The scholarship program idea came up after Wolf spoke with Woese a few weeks later. Robinson put the program together with Woese's input not long before he passed away.
“When I visited in 2019, the IGB introduced some of the summer program participants to me and showed me Carl's office, its entrance decorated with publications of Von Foerster's BCL group,” Wolf said. “I hope the Carl R. Woese Undergraduate Research Scholars can make a difference for someone who is interested in discovering more about the nature of evolution.”
Now retired from his career as a technology developer, consultant, and author, Wolf lives in New Mexico and is an avid wildlife photographer and researcher in ancient numismatics.
By: Ananya Sen
Photos By: Daniel Wolf