Dr. Ron Reeder, a Renaissance man who helped unlock the mysteries of gene regulation and then swapped his microscope for a camera, died of lymphoma Aug. 12. He was 79.
Reeder joined Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in 1978 and helped found its Basic Sciences Division, one of five scientific divisions at the center. He was among the first scientists to develop a model system to study the cellular machinery that "reads" DNA and converts it to RNA, a fundamental step in how our genes affect our biology. Cells contain three such machines — RNA polymerases — to carry out this process, known as transcription.
His work enabled a much broader understanding of the mechanism of gene expression, said Dr. Mark Groudine, former director of the Basic Sciences Division and a longtime friend and colleague of Reeder's.
"Ron was an extraordinary scientist, and his work is considered some of the most fundamental to the field," Groudine said. "He was one of the first to point out that there are both common and distinct mechanisms among different classes of polymerases."
Reeder’s career was focused on RNA polymerase I, the enzyme that synthesizes ribosomal RNA, or rRNA. rRNA is the principal component of ribosomes, which are the protein-building machines of a cell.
When Reeder started that work in the 1970s, “we didn’t know anything about how synthesis of ribosomal RNA was regulated,” said Dr. Steven Hahn of Fred Hutch, who was mentored by Reeder. “No one had characterized the rRNA genes, nor identified any of the factors involved in its regulation.”
By doing so, Reeder helped lay the groundwork for current research into several strategies to potentially treat cancer, he added. Cancer cells ramp up their production of rRNA, and researchers are exploring ways to turn down that production, based on Reeder’s fundamental work.
Reeder began working at Fred Hutch when the fledgling center and its Basic Sciences Division had an uncertain future. At his retirement in 2002, Reeder credited 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 at the time. "Now a position at the Hutch is a real boost to a young person's career."
So was working in Reeder’s lab.
“Ron was known by everyone as a remarkably proficient scientist, but he was equally known as a great mentor,” said Dr. Deborah Banker, a scientific writer and editor at Fred Hutch who knew Reeder for 30 years. “Everyone who came out of his lab stayed connected, which speaks to the mentor he was. Ron was a teacher in so many ways to so many people. Some of us were lucky enough to be his friends, but all of us were impacted by everything he loved and shared.”
That spirit was woven into the fabric of the Basic Sciences Division. Reeder and other founding division members are credited with the vision to create an egalitarian basic-research group dedicated to studying fundamental biological principles.
"Science is very competitive and cutthroat, but we keep that competition outside the division," Reeder said in 2002. "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."
That still holds true today, decades later, Hahn said. “I think Ron’s most enduring legacy is the culture of the Basic Sciences Division, a culture of collaboration and helping each other out,” he said. “It’s not that way at every other institution, and it’s a big reason why it’s such a pleasure to work here at the Hutch.”
When Reeder retired from Fred Hutch, so did his wife and longtime research colleague, Judy Roan. At just 63, Reeder hoped to establish a second career as a photographic artist. Even then, he was clearly on his way: Several of his stunning black-and-white Northwest landscapes lined the walls of a café on the Fred Hutch campus. They’re still there today.
Few of his colleagues were surprised at his decision to start another career. “When he was here, Ron was science 100% of the time,” Hahn said. “But when he went home, he had lots of outside interests. At some point he decided to give photography his full attention. He couldn’t do both, because Ron did everything 100%.”
He carried his love of teaching and mentoring into his second career. Reeder took great pains to learn virtually every possible way to develop photographs, his wife said, and he would gladly share his expertise with anyone.
“Our house was always full of people who wanted to learn photographic processes from Ron,” said Roan, also a skilled photographer. “His darkroom here will still be open to all his friends.”
“Ron liked to say that ‘Friends are people who put up with me,’” she added. “He never lacked for an opinion about a topic. And he never lacked for friends.”
On a website dedicated to his photography, he noted that growing up in Japan strongly influenced his art. So did the photography of the 19th century and his many years peering through microscopes. All these influences “are churning around in my subconscious, telling me when to click the shutter,” he wrote in his artist's statement. “The goal is to produce beautiful images that create an emotional connection with the viewer.”
Dr. Sue Biggins, the current director of the Basic Sciences Division, said his colleagues can be comforted by the beautiful prints that remain on the Hutch campus and the knowledge he fulfilled his goal of having a second career. Biggins will personally cherish the photos he took of her children.
“Ron is a great example of someone who has a passion and knows how to follow it,” Biggins said. “In his case, he was lucky to have two that he excelled at and touched all of us with both of them.”
In his art, just like in his science, Reeder was a perfectionist, Groudine recalled. His favorite example of that perfectionism came from many years ago, when Groudine and his wife had a dinner party. They had just purchased a long French farm table they were proud of. Reeder looked at it for a while, then started to run his hands over the top.
He then delivered his verdict: the table was warped. “We need to fix that,” he told Groudine.
Reeder happened to be a master woodworker, so he took the table to his woodshop and planed the top until he was satisfied. He returned it a few days later.
“Ron was someone who just enjoyed life,” Groudine said. “He was an extraordinary scientist, woodworker, housebuilder and photographer. He always had a gleam in his eye.”
Groudine and his wife saw that playful gleam just days before Reeder died. Reeder and Roan had just returned from a photography trip to Alaska, and Reeder excitedly showed off prints.
He also proudly showed them to Dr. Brenda Sandmaier, a longtime friend and colleague. It was his and Roan’s fifth photography trip to Alaska, and Reeder came back with several shots he called “bucket list photos,” like bears swimming in a wild river.
When he returned home, he made the decision to stop treatment and go into hospice. And then he went into his darkroom to develop his latest — and last — photos.
“He faced his impending death with a spirit of ‘I’m living every minute until I go,’” Sandmaier said. “He wanted to be there and present with Judy until the end. We all could learn a lesson from him.”
This story was partially adapted from a 2002 article by Barbara Berg.
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Jake Siegel is a former staff writer at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center. Previously, he covered health topics at UW Medicine and technology at Microsoft. He has an M.A. from the Missouri School of Journalism.