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Leaving a Legacy: Dr. Richard J. Frisque

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Room 434 in South Frear will forever look a little different as the familiar face that pursuedscientific discovery for more than 35 years moves onto the next chapter of his life. Dr. Frisque, a staple of the Biochemistry and Molecular Biology (BMB) department is leaving behind a celebrated career at Penn State University, one that helped shape the minds of hundreds of students and impacted dozens of colleagues.

Dr. Frisque received his Bachelors of Science Degree in Medical Microbiology from the University of Wisconsin in 1974, where he remained to conduct graduate studies under the mentorship of Dr. Duard Walker.  Upon defending his thesis in 1978, he received an appointment for a Postdoctoral Fellowship to Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory where he worked under the direction of Drs. Joseph Sambrook and Yakov Gluzman.

After three years at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, Dr. Frisque began to look for his first “real” job, searching through scientific journals and publications for universities showing an interest in offering employment. Penn State was one of several universities looking for a virologist, and although Dr. Frisque, was very aware of the Penn State Football Program and its coach, he did not know much about the science being conducted at the university. Nevertheless, he applied for the position, received an interview offer and hoped that the experience, at the least, would be good practice for navigating the job market.

At that time, Bob Bernlohr was the department head and it was the interaction with him and other faculty that made Penn State very attractive to Dr. Frisque. Potential colleagues included several virologists who hailed from impressive locations and degree programs and who were conducting exciting, cutting-edge research. The lab space offered to new faculty members was quite generous, more generous than most other places he had visited. Along with all of this was the attraction of the small town feel of State College, especially important, as Dr. Frisque was the single parent of a three-year old son at the time.

Since arriving at Penn State, Dr. Frisque says there have been many changes to the department, to the university and to the town.  A number of buildings currently on campus were not yet built, and the area directly behind Eisenhower Auditorium was nothing but parking lots and soccer fields. University Park Campus had not yet expanded across Atherton Street and the area surrounding Beaver Stadium, the Bryce Jordan Center, the Multi-sport Indoor Facility, Jeffrey Field and Lubrano Park did not exist. Dr. Frisque recalls that even South Frear looks very different now following the recent renovations performed on his long-time lab home.

Dr. Frisque was one of the founding faculty members of the Summer Symposium in Molecular Biology, an annual event initiated in 1982, the year he joined the department as an Assistant Professor.  Dr. Frisque served as the Director of this Program from 1989 to 1991.  Dr. Frisque received tenure and was promoted to Associate Professor of Molecular and Cell Biology in 1987, and in 1993, he became a Professor of Molecular Virology, a position he held the duration of his career.  He also served five years as Co-Director of the Integrative Biosciences (IBIOS) Graduate Program.  Dr. Frisque was appointed Interim Department Head of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology from 2007 – 2009 and was asked to perform these duties a second time in 2014.  He acted as the department’s Ombudsman since 2012.

Dr. Frisque and his past and present lab members
Dr. Frisque with current and past members of his lab.

Over the years, Dr. Frisque earned many honors and recognitions. He was the first recipient of the Graduate Faculty Teaching Award in 1992, received the Daniel R. Tershak Outstanding Teaching Award twice (1995 and 2011) and received the Eberly College of Science C.I. Noll Award for Excellence in Teaching in 1997. In 1993 he developed the course, Ethics in Biomedical Science, one of the core courses taken by incoming BMMB graduate students, and a course that fulfills Penn State’s requirement for ethics training by all graduate programs across campus. He was named a Fellow of Penn State’s Rock Ethic Institute in 2011, was awarded the Dean’s Climate and Diversity Special Recognition of Service Award in 2012, was recognized as one of the most highly rated professors in Eberly College of Science (2012 and 2013) and was awarded life time membership to the American Society for Virology in 2015.

When asked what honors and achievements he is most proud of, Dr. Frisque simply stated that it was “seeing his students achieve their goals.” To Dr. Frisque, success was watching his graduate students earn their advanced degrees, and then moving on to contribute to the scientific community.

“Most graduate students come to a lab very green,” Dr. Frisque said “and then you would see them begin to transition toward independence.  The timing of this event was different in each case, but it was the transition from a student having to be told what to do, to a student telling you what they think should be done that was so rewarding. There are few things in one’s career more satisfying than knowing you had an impact on your students’ lives.”

Now that’s not to say that Dr. Frisque did not have his share of struggles. When serving as Interim Department Head, Dr. Frisque faced new challenges in navigating colleague relationships and time management.  Dr. Frisque never wanted to serve in a supervisory capacity as the “boss”, especially after working alongside his colleagues for 25 years as a faculty member.  He now needed to make decisions for the betterment of the department that might not always be popular.  In addition, Dr. Frisque struggled with the time commitment required of a Department Head, a commitment that he found impacted 95% of his day. “Learning how to balance my role as P.I. and mentor in the laboratory and my role as department head was difficult” Dr. Frisque said.

While serving in his interim role, he set to improve the climate of the department by expanding the number of staff, promoting transparency in financial matters, actively lobbying for bridge funding for labs with funding difficulties and fostering ethics training. In 2010, Dr. Frisque created an ethics workshop for faculty in the Eberly College of Science, and he himself taught these workshops until 2017.

During stressful times, Dr. Frisque turned to his wife, Dee, as a confidant and sounding board.

Dr. Frisque met Dee, a staff employee in the Microbiology Department, when he arrived at Penn State; she was responsible for preparing his papers, grants, lectures and exams.  Over a two-year period of working together a friendship developed, and after several attempts, Dr. Frisque finally convinced Dee to go to lunch with him; the rest is history.  Four years later Dee and Dr. Frisque married, are currently approaching 29 years of marriage and have raised three sons together. Their oldest son, Dan, works in Washington D.C. at the FBI, their middle son, Andy, lives near Austin Texas and works for the United States Youth Soccer League and their youngest son, Duane, is currently the Associate Athletic Director for Harvard University. Dee continued her education while raising three sons and received her Ph.D. in Workforce Education in 2005.

In 2006, Dee and Dr. Frisque installed a pond in their backyard, which became an oasis during the challenging times of being interim department head. After a long day, Dr. Frisque would come home from work, and he and Dee would go out to the pond with a glass of wine and talk about the day. “Dee was uncanny in her ability to distill a problem down to its essence; she always gave me sage advice. My biggest help in the most trying of times has always been my wife.”

When it came to his lab, Dr. Frisque considered those who worked for and with him as a family. He never wanted his students or staff to feel intimidated, anxious or stressed, and he would often talk with them about how he believed family came first and the lab second. Many in his group lived considerable distances from their families, and he would work with them to assure that they were able to stay connected to their homes. Dr. Frisque worked tirelessly to develop a team-driven environment that included rafting trips down the Youghiogheny River and camping trips along Pine Creek to allow everyone to get to know one another.

Each time the lab surpassed a milestone or a member of the lab passed a comprehensive exam, or earned their M.S. or Ph.D., that moment was celebrated. To celebrate, the lab would crack open a bottle of champagne (“all lab folk were 21 or older”) aim the cork at the ceiling tiles in Dr. Frisque’s office and then let the cork fly. They would then pull down the ceiling tile and everyone would sign their names around the dent the cork had made. This tradition went on for 30 years and Dr. Frisque recalls how every single tile in his office was filled.  Past students would drop-in to say hello and would reflect on the tiles.  “That’s what made this career great, having the chance to conduct important science with the people I cared deeply about, and then have them return years later as friends and colleagues,” Dr. Frisque stated.

Over his 35 year career, Dr. Frisque published 70 manuscripts, taught 10 different courses at Penn State, served as Guest Lecturer for an additional 18 courses at Penn State, supervised 23 graduate students in his lab and trained 9 Postdoctoral Fellows. His lab has been recognized as one of the top JC Virus Labs in the country, and he is regarded by his students and looked to by his colleagues. Colleague Dr. Moriah Szpara actually sat in one of Dr. Frisque’s classes as an undergraduate at Penn State and reflected back on why she remembered his class to this day and why he was the excellent teacher he was, saying “It’s how he teaches. He integrates into his classes and did and I’m sure throughout his research and mentorship the process of science, the mechanics of how you do molecular virology and the ethics involved.”

So what’s next for Dr. Frisque? He certainly is not worried about this next step. “I’m not concerned at all.  I’m ready to move into this next phase of my life.  I’ve loved the work that came with being a professor, but now I have time to do other things for which I also have a passion.” Dr. Frisque is a collector of stamps, coins, old fishing and hunting equipment, postcards, antiques and wildlife art. In addition, he enjoys photography, but admits, “I’m not that great at it, but I do want to get better.” He and his wife Dee, took up fly fishing 3 years ago, love to travel, and are now debating on whether to tackle golf together.

Thank you Dr. Frisque for the time, talent and dedication you have given to Penn State University for the last 35 years and especially to the many student lives you touched and shaped. Enjoy your retirement sir, you’ve earned it!