Dr. Ralph Dewey is the Philip Morris Professor of Crop and Soil Sciences and Adjunct Professor of Plant and Microbial Biology at North Carolina State University (NCSU). He was awarded his B.S. degree in biology from Utah State University, followed by his M.S. and Ph.D. in Crop Science from North Carolina State University. Afterwards, Ralph received an NSF Postdoctoral Research Fellowship in Plant Biology to conduct postdoctoral research at the Waksman Institute at Rutgers University. Ralph joined the faculty at NCSU in 1991. He has been issued 34 U.S. Patents for his discoveries in plant biotechnology, with several more pending, and he was awarded NCSU’s Philip Morris endowed Professorship in 2009 for his research on harm reduction in tobacco. In this interview, Ralph shares more about his life and science.
People Behind the Science Podcast Show Notes
Life Outside of Science (2:50)
When Ralph has free time, he enjoys hanging out with his wife at their nearby beach condo and also watching college sports (particularly football and basketball). In addition, Ralph is working on writing his first novel.
The Scientific Side (5:08)
Ralph uses the tools of molecular biology to identify and characterize genes of agronomic importance in crop species. When possible, he and his team alter those genes in ways that add value to the crop above and beyond what can be attained with traditional breeding approaches. Ralph and his team have done important work on the genetics of tobacco plants to decrease the hazards of smoking for people who still smoke.
A Dose of Motivation (9:28)
“O toiling hands of mortals! O unwearied feet, travelling ye know not whither! […] Little do ye know your own blessedness; for to travel hopefully is a better thing than to arrive, and the true success is to labour.” from El Dorado by Robert Louis Stevenson
What Got You Hooked on Science? (13:13)
Growing up, Ralph was surrounded by science since his father and three uncles were PhD-trained scientists. Two of Ralph’s uncles were professors at Utah State University (in plant breeding and statistics, respectively), and one was a marine biologist at UC Davis. However, Ralph’s father, a plant geneticist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), had the most pronounced impact on Ralph’s career. As far back as he can remember, Ralph found his father’s job interesting, particularly when the work allowed him to travel to faraway places around the world to collect plants. While there wasn’t really any pressure for Ralph to pursue science, he knew he wanted to be a researcher. The first molecular biology course Ralph took in college completely captivated him, and he decided he wanted to pursue a PhD using these tools in plants.
The Low Points: Failures and Challenges (23:13)
The years Ralph spent as a postdoc were a struggle. He had just finished an amazingly successful PhD experience, and when he arrived at the lab of his postdoc advisor, he was impressed with the resources and technical expertise there. Ralph decided to take on the ambitious project of transforming the mitochondrial genome. This would involve incorporating and expressing a foreign gene within the genome of the mitochondrial (as opposed to the genome in the nucleus of a cell). The project would have represented a major technological breakthrough. Ralph’s postdoc advisor agreed to let Ralph work on the project, and Ralph put in a tremendous amount of effort over a period of about two years. In the end, the project was not successful, and Ralph found himself two years into a postdoc with nothing tangible to show for his efforts because none of their results were publishable. Fortunately, an opening for a new faculty member at North Carolina State University (NCSU) popped up, and Ralph was hired for the position. To date, no labs have been able to successfully transform a mitochondrial genome in a plant, so stepping away from that project was the right choice.
A Shining Success! (26:45)
When transitioning from a postdoc at Rutgers to a faculty member at NCSU, Ralph had a unique position where he was tasked with applying new molecular biology techniques in collaborative projects with other faculty members. This gave him tremendous freedom, but it was difficult to get funding for these kinds of projects where he didn’t have prior experience in the area. Some of his first collaborators were working on improving the quality and abundance of the oil in soybean seeds. This oil is a major vegetable oil in the U.S. and has a variety of uses in industry. At the time, little was known about the genes responsible for oil production, and Ralph was working on identifying some of these genes. After about two and a half years, he still hadn’t made substantial progress. There was a promising lead on a pivotal gene for oil production in yeast cells, and he wanted to identify a similar mutant in soybeans. To do this, he needed to do a complex and expensive set of experiments. Fortunately, one of Ralph’s colleagues provided the funds needed to do a limited amount of these experiments. However, after trying the procedure multiple times, Ralph still had not succeeded. There were only enough supplies left for one more round, and he knew that if this didn’t work, he would have to move on to another area of research. As luck would have it, the experiment worked, and Ralph got the data he needed to move this project forward. This one experiment led to his first USDA grant, which in turn led to subsequent funding, and it really helped launch his independent research career.
Book Recommendations (33:23)
The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown
Most Treasured Travel (34:41)
Ralph will never forget a trip he took to Guizhou, China, to visit a group of tobacco researchers who wanted to establish collaborations with the scientists at NCSU. The province is in a mountainous region of China, and they had to travel through dozens of remarkable mountain tunnels on a high-speed bullet train to get there. While in Guizhou, Ralph was able to visit the tallest waterfall in China, see amazing sights while hiking, and explore some of the local caves by boat. Another memorable trip was for a conference that Ralph attended in Berlin, Germany. At the time, Ralph’s son was in high school and had been studying German, so Ralph invited his son to join him on the trip. It was a great opportunity to attend an outstanding conference and also to see the sights of Berlin. They particularly enjoyed a spectacular show with music and lights projected on the Brandenburg Gate at night.
Quirky Traditions and Funny Memories (38:25)
When Ralph was in graduate school, there was a visiting professor working in the lab who was one of the funniest people Ralph has ever met. He played a number of pranks on lab members, and this started a tradition of practical jokes. For example, they had a jar of small glass beads in the lab, and they began putting these glass beads in unexpected places where people would inadvertently spill them. Beads would come tumbling out of the paper towel roll tube that you grabbed on the lab bench and cascade out of a hole cut out of the bottom of boxes of chem wipes. It was a funny and harmless way to inject some humor into everyday lab life.
Advice For Us All (42:47)
Believe in yourself. You can be successful in whatever you put your mind to. There will always be jobs for people who are the best at what they do. Also, try as many different things as you can. By trying a lot of things, eventually some of them will pan out.
Ralph’s research is focused on the application of molecular biology-based technologies toward crop improvement. Over his career, Ralph’s lab has worked on a diversity of projects, including the investigation of genes responsible for seed oil quality in soybean, the development of a new herbicide resistance strategy, harm reduction in tobacco, and the alteration of the sweetness profile in the plant Stevia. His most recent success has been the development of new strategies for the production of hybrid seeds and seedless fruits. Outside of work, Ralph enjoys spending time with his wife at their beach condo, keeping up with the busy lives of their two children (one in medical school and the other in law school), and working on the next ‘Great American Novel’.
Support for this episode of People Behind the Science was provided by New England Biolabs, Inc.