Photo by Theresa Naujack
Four decades of peering at frog eggs in search of clues to their genetic mysteries might be enough to spur any retiring scientist to give his eyes a rest.
But not the eyes of Dr. Ron Reeder, whose retirement after 24 years as a well-known biologist will take him from looking into a microscope to looking through a camera's viewfinder as he embarks on a new career as a photographic artist.
Those who dine in the Double Helix Caf? may have noticed that he's already well on the way toward that goal. Reeder is the creator of the stunning black-and-white Northwest landscapes that line the cafeteria walls.
On Oct. 1, Reeder, founding member of the Basic Sciences Division, and his wife and longtime research colleague, Judy Roan, will shut the doors to the Reeder lab on the first floor of the Weintraub Building. Both talented photographers, the two plan to spend much of their newfound free time in the his-and-hers darkrooms in their Mercer Island home, much of which they built themselves.
"All my life I've had the urge to be an artist," Reeder said. "At the same time, I had the practical notion that I needed to earn a living, so I pursued another of my interests and became a scientist. It's been a gas, but I'd kill for the opportunity to have a second career. I'm 63. If I'm going to do it, now's the time."
To his colleagues, Reeder, who joined the center faculty in 1978, is known, personally and professionally, for devoting yeoman energy to accomplish his goals.
As a research scientist, he was among the first to develop a model system to study the cellular machinery that "reads" DNA and converts it to RNA, a fundamental step in gene expression. Cells contain three such machines, called RNA polymerases, to carry out this process, known as transcription.
While Reeder's attention has focused on the transcription machine called RNA polymerase I, which acts on a small subset of cellular genes, his work has enabled a much broader understanding of the mechanism of gene expression, said Dr. Mark Groudine, Basic Sciences Division director and Reeder's longtime colleague.
"Ron's work is considered some of the most fundamental to the field," he said. "He was one of the first to point out that there are both common and distinct mechanisms among different classes of polymerases."
Groudine's appreciation of Reeder extends outside the lab as well.
"Ron is so efficient and excellent at everything he does, from science to woodworking to homebuilding to his most recent passion, photography," he said. "There's nothing he can't do, and whatever Ron does, he does extraordinarily well."
Dr. Paul Neiman, a colleague of many years and former division director, described Reeder as the division's "Renaissance man."
"Ron has a broad range of interests and skills, and he has played a strong leadership role in the division, particularly when we were planning the design of the new building on the Day Campus," he said. "Ron also served as associate division director with me and continued in that role when Mark took over the director's position, which helped to ensure a smooth transition.
"He's a delightful person and as honest and straightforward as the day is long. I've enjoyed working with him and will miss him tremendously."
Reeder and Roan began working at Fred Hutchinson when the fledgling center and its Basic Sciences Division had an uncertain future. Reeder credits the late Dr. Hal Weintraub, one of the division's founding members, for inspiring him to give up his staff position at the Carnegie Institute of Baltimore to risk a move to Seattle.
"When I came out here to the 'wild West,' I wasn't even sure the institution would survive, " Reeder said. "Now a position at the Hutch is a real boost to a young person's career."
A significant part of the center's establishment as a world-class institution has been the steady development of the departments and services that support the science, said Roan, whose scientific and organizational skills have been instrumental to the Reeder lab's accomplishments.
"The gears of the center run very smoothly," she said. "You have to have both the science and the support to make it work. All of these departments - glassware, purchasing, engineering and many others - have provided bureaucracy-free support from the beginning. And because there are people who have worked here as long as we have, there has been a feeling of continuity."
Reeder and other founding division members are credited with the vision to create an egalitarian basic-research group dedicated to studying fundamental biological principles.
"I'm proud of my career at the Hutch because a small group of us worked together to turn Basic Sciences into an organization that was run the way we felt a scientific endeavor should be run," he said. "Not many people get the opportunity to take part in something like that."
One of the most pleasing aspects of the center, he said, has been the division's collegiality.
"Science is very competitive and cutthroat, but we keep that competition outside the division," he said. "It's out there in the real world, but not in here. Once you're in the club, you don't have to compete. Inside, there's nothing but support."
Reeder will retain an emeritus status in the division and plans to maintain relationships with both the center and his colleagues, although he has not yet defined his specific involvements.
"Many scientists envision that retirement from science means keeping a small office and a lab bench," he said. "That never appealed to me. We managed to play it at a high level for a long time, and for me, it's more of an all-or-nothing proposition."
Still, Roan said, a "huge majority" of their friends remain at the center, to which they will stay connected.
After the division bids them a formal farewell at a party on Sept. 21, Reeder and Roan will kick off their retirement by attending a photography workshop in Death Valley, Calif., that focuses on large-format black-and-white landscapes.
'A hard push'
"I'm going to give the photography business a hard push, not as a commercial photographer but as an art photographer, although I don't quite know what that means yet," he said.
His focus will be on landscapes, portraitures and "a fair amount of weird stuff" that reflects a recent fascination with digital photography. Already, his work is on exhibit at Ringworks Studio in the Madison Park neighborhood, and he has begun work on two collaborative book projects.
Reeder's and Roan's artistic talents extend beyond photography. Accomplished woodworkers, they built their first home in Madison Park almost entirely themselves, hiring contractors only for electrical and plumbing work.
The couple also did the woodwork, finish work and flooring in their Mercer Island home, which exhibits a mix of Japanese and Northwest styles. Reeder, whose parents were missionaries, lived in Japan from age 9 to 15, and he returned to Kyoto as a research fellow after completing graduate school. He and Roan also have traveled to Japan on several occasions for pleasure.
As the two recently cleared out their laboratory, Reeder reflected on a gratifying three decades.
"It's always a mixed bag to leave," he said. "We've got a lot of good memories. The Hutch has a way of impressing its culture and its way of doing things on the people who work here."