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Image: Bill Fenical

Still Connected After all These Years

Growing number of UC San Diego professors have taught on campus for 50 or more years – even in retirement, their legacy and commitment continue

“I don’t really understand how people who have been active in the university can retire,” said William Fenical, UC San Diego distinguished professor of oceanography and founding director of the Center for Marine Biotechnology and Biomedicine at Scripps Institution of Oceanography. “We’ve dedicated every waking moment of our lives for 50 years to doing things that are beneficial for folks. How do you just drop that?” At 74, Fenical is still is a full-time professor and still researching drugs from the sea, including compounds that look very promising to fight melanoma, multiple myeloma as well as breast and ovarian cancer.

Many of us cannot picture ourselves working for the same organization for decades. But a growing number of UC San Diego academics have been teaching students, conducting research and connecting with the campus for a half century or more. Following are remarkable insights from a few of these extraordinary faculty members whose fondness for the campus continues into their golden years.

Early in his career, Fenical and his colleagues sought to better understand the chemistry of the ocean. Once underwater breathing apparatus—SCUBA—was invented after World War II, the ocean became a brand new medical resource. Fenical recalled, “We were still naïve, and didn’t know exactly what we were doing. But there were Eureka moments all the time. It has been an extremely exciting ride from curiosity all the way to developing drugs. I had to learn new fields four or five times over my career. I went back to the books, and consulted with colleagues. I had to learn how to reinvent what I knew.”

He is still actively researching drugs from the sea. “Compounds right now are very promising for melanoma. We’re almost at stage where companies come to us.” Fencial explained, “We want them to take it forward … we are not a pharmaceutical, we discover. We don’t have the resources to develop our discoveries into drugs. We work with UC San Diego Office of Innovation and Commercialization all the time to help execute agreements with local pharmaceutical companies. They have been very helpful in moving things forward.”

He added, “My research is why I don’t retire. I have a career, a mission, not a job. I’m working because I love it.”

Recruited by Roger Revelle

Image: George Feher

George Feher

George Feher, professor emeritus in Physical Sciences, uncovered the basic mechanisms for how bacteria use photosynthesis to convert light into chemical energy. He started at UC San Diego as a physics professor in 1960, and is one of the university’s founding faculty members. Today, the 92-year-old still comes into the office to keep up with department news, and recently authored a book on the holocaust.

He knew UC San Diego founder Roger Revelle quite well. “I was part of a group first appointed to establish the university. There were a dozen or so people—physicists, biologists, chemists. We were given temporary facilities at Scripps with a mandate to set up a university. Physical Sciences was the first unit; others came later. Roger Revelle had a lot of strong ideas, and was a real visionary.”

Feher recalled that recruitment was a problem for Revelle because people didn’t want to come, believing it would be difficult to establish a first-rate university in an idyllic playground like La Jolla. “But for me, it was great,” he said. “My first love is research. And a big incentive ... was teaching graduate students. Roger wanted ‘UCLJ’ (the University of La Jolla, the campus’s original moniker) to have only graduate students like Cal Tech or Rockefeller University in New York so he could really attract outstanding faculty and researchers.

“But Roger was a bit of a con man, too,” he explained with a chuckle. “He brought us here, and spread out the red carpet. Showed each of us a beautiful lot in La Jolla Farms and said, ‘George if you come, this lot could be yours.’ All the new recruits became colleagues and friends, so later when we compared notes, it turned out he showed everyone the same lot! None of us got the lot.” On a more serious note, Feher added, “He fought very hard for UC San Diego but paid for it by making enemies and not being the Chancellor.”

Breaking the glass ceiling

Image: Jean Mandler

Jean Mandler

One of only a few women in the formative years of UC San Diego, Jean Mandler, distinguished professor of psychology emeritus, founded in 1986 the world’s first Department of Cognitive Science with fellow professors Jeff Elman and Don Norman. She has been a pioneer in shaping contemporary theories of cognitive development. The scope of Mandler’s research covers a wide span of knowledge representations, including animacy, spatial relations, concept hierarchies, scripted activities, story grammars, pictorial scenes and discourse.

Mandler met her husband, psychologist George Mandler, when she was his research assistant. They married in 1956, the year she got her Ph.D., had two children–which delayed her academic career—and came to UC San Diego in 1965 when George was recruited to be a faculty member. After a series of research positions, which was typical for women in the 1950s and 1960s, she finally became an associate professor in 1973 and professor in 1977. But it wasn’t an easy road for women in academia at that time.

In a 2007 issue of The Observer, an Association for Psychological Science newsletter, Mandler writes, “It has been a wonderful life, but it was chancy for me. George’s career path was never in doubt, but mine certainly was, and I do not advise young women to postpone their careers as I did, because they may not be as lucky. All my women colleagues knew that careers in academia would be difficult to find, especially so if one married. I had a courtesy appointment in research. In 1973, at age 43, I finally got my first regular appointment, in the Department of Psychology at UC San Diego.”

Mandler retired as a research professor in 2000 and said that after retirement, the result (the How to Build a Baby series) was what she considers the best work of her career. At age 86, she continues to be very much involved with research. “I am still working in Cog Sci, have two papers hopefully to come out soon. I expect I will continue to work for another few years. 

When asked about her longevity at UC San Diego, Mandler replied, “Why stay at this institution? Well, it’s the best.”

Mentoring the Next Generation

Image: Melvin Green

Melvin Green

Melvin Green, professor emeritus of biology, came to the campus in 1963. Academically, he considers his investigation into the process of cancer causation, leading to the discovery of polyoma and SV40 viral chromatin in 1969, his most important contribution to molecular biology. But looking back on his career, he considers his efforts to empower students in achieving their dreams among his most important and deeply satisfying contribution to the university.

As he nears his 79th birthday, the retired professor happily spends hours mentoring first-generation students from low-income families as part of the Emeriti Mentor Program that he created in 2006. The program has about 50 retired UC San Diego professors helping nearly 100 freshmen and sophomores, providing career guidance and an understanding ear.

Green said, “The university came into my life when I was 26 years old. I didn’t envision being at this institution for so long—I thought I would be here for five years. I came from the East Coast and left family, so I assumed I would be back. But this is too wonderful a place to leave, both in terms of living in San Diego and working at UC San Diego. I couldn’t imagine leaving.

“When you retire—and I never thought I would—you start looking for things to do where you feel like you are still useful in world,” he added. “While mentoring, I derive a tremendous amount of pleasure meeting students and helping them any way I can.”

He is not ready to slow down anytime soon. “I mentored a student this morning. I have about five student mentees right now, and a week ago, I had breakfast with Oasis students at Revelle College,” he said. “Maybe I should hang out a sign, like the Peanuts cartoon, ‘Retired Professor Will Advise for Coffee!’”

Retired, then hired

Image: Donald Wesling

Donald Wesling

Donald Wesling, professor emeritus Arts and Humanities, retired from UC San Diego’s Department of Literature in 2006—and then promptly took on the directorship of the prestigious Clarion Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers’ Workshop, the nation’s oldest and most respected program of its kind. Clarion is an intensive six-week summer program focused on fundamentals particular to the writing of science fiction and fantasy short stories.

“I was hired at UC San Diego in 1965 at the time when there was tremendous expansion of the UC system, with new campuses, new departments, and the need to hire lots of new professors,” said the highly respected teacher of creative writing. During his tenure at UC San Diego, he was professor of English Literature, specializing in courses on romantic and Victorian poetry, Samuel Johnson, literature and ecology and creative writing.  

“At Clarion, I would sit in twice a week, on the workshops, led by famous writers, a different writer for each of the six weeks. I got into the excitement of how stories are built, and decided to make some stories of my own. My book of seven stories is titled ‘Women in Charge,and in a hidden way, a few of these are UC San Diego tales.”

Wesling, 76, is no longer the director of Clarion Writer’s Workshop. “My current connection to the campus is as member of the Transdisciplinary Discussion Group in Ecology, organized out of the office of the Dean of Humanities and Arts. Currently, I am writing a book in the animal studies field, to be titled ‘There is a Mountain Lion in this Sentence,’ about the ambiguities of the animal within the human being, notably in literary language.”

Over the years, he has been pleased to see positive changes in higher education. “Mostly valuable as changes are: the coming of enhancements of the scene of teaching, with PowerPoint, digital media, speed of communication; the rules for fairness and diversity in hiring; the coming of feminism as a movement to influence research, teaching and relationships within the community; and the excellent buildings for teaching and offices the campus has built since the 60s, not least the Faculty Club.”

Once a teacher, always a teacher

Image: S. Gill Williamson

S. Gill Williamson

S. Gill Williamson, professor emeritus in the Jacobs School of Engineering, started his career in the Department of Mathematics in 1965. “My research in mathematics was in the design and analysis of algorithms which related to what was going on in CSE. I was invited to switch to CSE to be Chair in 1991 (at age 53). Although I had had little experience in administrative work, the change worked out well for me. CSE had hired many talented young people who were willing to tell me about their research. I learned a lot from them. Also, CSE had an excellent and talented staff.”

He added, “I stayed at UC San Diego for so long because it was committed to academic excellence and research. I also grew up in Santa Barbara and La Jolla and was an avid bodysurfer, a sport I engage in to this day. It was the perfect spot for me. The students, generally, were very bright and a pleasure to work with from 1965 until 2004 when I retired.”

Today, Williamson focuses on providing free educational material as the main task of his retirement. “From 1965 to 1991, I was a mathematics professor. I taught many calculus classes large and small during this period. In 1991, I transferred to Computer Science and Engineering—so my calculus teaching days were over. But in cleaning out files I came across handouts that I used to give to students who wanted to tutor for my integral calculus classes. I had fun rereading this ‘tutors’ guide,’ so I decided to bring it up to date with respect to online resources now regularly used by students.”

His free educational material extends to CSE20 and CSE21, classes that were co-listed with the Math15a and 15b. “My mathematics department colleague, Ed Bender, and I wrote the texts for Math15a and 15b which we provided online for free,” Williamson added. “I have benefited from many interesting conversations with faculty teaching these subjects.”