Peggy Wheelock-the ultimate in research and mentorship

This blog has been long in the making. Long, because until recently, I’m not sure I would have been able to type out these words without flooding my keyboard with tears. But the time has come for me to write down a few personal thoughts about Peggy Wheelock.

This week, about four and a half years after Peggy’s untimely death, we had the first annual Peggy Wheelock Award for Excellence in Research, Mentoring and Promotion of Women in Science–awarded to Dr. Jean Schwarzbauer of Princeton University. Dr. Schwarzbauer is, of course, a perfect recipient for this award, but for this blog I am going to focus on Peggy.

Peggy and her scientific and lifetime partner, Dr. Keith Johnson, were recruited to the University of Nebraska Medical Center (UNMC) in 2001 from Toledo, Ohio. Peggy had a distinguished career as an outstanding cell biologist with a stellar and international reputation. But no less than her research was her passion and capacity for mentoring the next generation of scientists. Within a year of arriving in Omaha, she had already initiated the Nebraska Center for Cellular Signaling (NCCS)–a program devoted to collaborative efforts in our somewhat isolated state, and especially to the development and mentoring of young faculty members.

Peggy successfully received one of the largest federal grants in the history of the state to do this, and put together a group of devoted mentors to help out young faculty members who were accepted into the program based on merit. Under Peggy’s able leadership, and with Keith as her second-in-command, this NCCS program at UNMC became one of the most successful ever–a program to be emulated.

I had the good fortune of meeting Peggy in 2003, shortly after joining UNMC. In my interviews and subsequent visits to UNMC, each time she had been out of town, and I had been told by dozens of people about her. If I had met her on one of my interviews, it would likely have made my decision even easier to join UNMC.

Asked to join the NCCS program as a young project leader, I found Peggy to be one of the most remarkable people that I had ever met. Brilliant, but without pretenses, entirely direct and comfortable in her own skin, she was the penultimate leader and one of those people who just knew how to get things done. Now I am someone who prides myself on my own independence–not the sort of person who typically follows others–but if Peggy had asked me to jump off a cliff, I probably would have done it without thinking twice.

Over the years, as I advanced through the system, I also became a mentor for junior scientists in our NCCS program–in fact, I was first asked to help out when Peggy became ill about 5 years ago. While her shoes will always be too big for anyone to fill, the overwhelming unity and desire to pitch in by the people who knew Peggy exemplifies her impact on us all.

The following anecdote serves as a brief example of the type of person that Peggy was: one day, I was sitting in my office, working on on a grant and the phone rang. It was Peggy. She said, “Steve, I’ve been thinking about your career, and I think it’s time for you to get your name on some journal editorial boards.” Now, what’s remarkable about that statement is not simply that it was true–and Peggy very astutely pointed that out. What’s mind-boggling is that I realized that there was someone else out there in this universe who actually gave a damn about my career development! Those of us in science know that it’s a lonely world-sometimes a dog-eat-dog world, with everyone busy and struggling with their own agendas and careers. The idea that Peggy was taking time to consider my career was something that to this day I have trouble fathoming. And rather than merely alert me to the idea of joining editorial boards (which I have since done, and perhaps serve on too many, now), Peggy’s phone call and style of mentorship has had a lasting impact on me and has taught me a lot about the way I want to be remembered one day by other scientists.

About Steve Caplan

I am a Professor of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology at the University of Nebraska Medical Center in Omaha, Nebraska where I mentor a group of students, postdoctoral fellows and researchers working on endocytic protein trafficking. My first lablit novel, "Matter Over Mind," is about a biomedical researcher seeking tenure and struggling to overcome the consequences of growing up with a parent suffering from bipolar disorder. Lablit novel #2, "Welcome Home, Sir," published by Anaphora Literary Press, deals with a hypochondriac principal investigator whose service in the army and post-traumatic stress disorder actually prepare him well for academic, but not personal success. Novel #3, "A Degree of Betrayal," is an academic murder mystery. "Saving One" is my most recent novel set at the National Institutes of Health. Now IN PRESS: Today's Curiosity is Tomorrow's Cure: The Case for Basic Biomedical Research (CRC PRESS, 2021). All views expressed are my own, of course--after all, I hate advertising.
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