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Leaving a Legacy: Dr. Ronald D. Porter

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July 26, 2017 - What began as tinkering and experimenting in a basement in Horseheads, New York became the basis for an extraordinary career in science, encompassing nearly four decades and leaving behind a profound footprint at Penn State University. Dr. Ronald Porter shared forty years of research and learning during his time with Penn State and we now take a look at those accomplishments and benchmarks that defined his career.

Dr. Porter’s journey to Penn State had many stops along the way. First, he graduated in 1967 with a Bachelor’s of Science Degree from Cornell University. Next, he attended Duke University earning his Master’s Degree in Biochemistry in 1969.  From 1969 to 1971, Dr. Porter served aboard the U.S.S. Columbus as the Assistant Missile Battery and Nuclear Weapons Officer and later as the Officer-in-Charge at a Naval Drug Screening Laboratory in San Diego.

Returning to Duke University, Dr. Porter received his Ph. D. in Biochemistry and Genetics in 1976 and went on to receive an appointment as a Postdoctoral Associate at Yale University working with Dr. K. Brooks Low.  During the second-year of his three-year appointment at Yale, Dr. Porter received a phone call from the Head of the Microbiology Department at Penn State.  A search for young faculty interested in the field of microbial genetics was underway, and while Dr. Porter had not begun to look for a position following his Postdoctoral Fellowship he approached his mentor, Dr. Low for insight. Acting on the advice to use the opportunity to gain interview experience, one week after interviewing Dr. Porter accepted the position of Assistant Professor of Microbiology and Molecular Genetics.

The Biochemistry and Molecular Biology (BMB) Department, as it is recognized today, was structured very differently when Dr. Porter came to Penn State in 1978. Upon his arrival, there were two departments; Microbiology and Cell Biology and Biochemistry and BioPhysics. In a short period of time, Dr. Porter experienced several large, departmental changes made by the leadership of Eberly College of Science and in the mid 80’s, BMB as we know it was formed.

Dr. Porter’s career at Penn State further progressed when he became an Associate Professor of Microbiology and Molecular Genetics in 1984, a position he held until his retirement. In addition, Dr. Porter served as the Chairman of the Microbiology Program from 1988 – 1990 and then served as the Director of Graduate Studies from 1992-2013.

Dr. Porter continued his involvement with Graduate Studies, serving as chairman or co-chairman 29 times for the following committees- Graduate Admissions, Graduate Council, Graduate Affairs, Graduate Fellowship and Awards and the Graduate Fellowship Committee. During his time as chairman of the Graduate Council, he drafted the new guidelines for the Graduate School Fellowships. Dr. Porter was also chairman to the following departmental committees- Peer Teaching Evaluation, the Marker Lecture Selection, the Curriculum Committee and The Natural Sciences Consultative Committee of the Faculty Senate General Education Subcommittee.

Through his experience with the Graduate School, Dr. Porter learned a valuable lesson when it comes to running effective meetings. Dr. Rodney Erickson, Dean at that time, instituted what would become known as the “Rodney Rule.”  The “Rodney Rule” stated that no meeting would last longer than 90 minutes and any agenda topics that could not be covered in that amount of time would not be discussed. Dr. Porter liked the “Rodney Rule” so much that he brought it back to the BMB Department and used it to guide his approach to committees and meetings.

When asked what acknowledgments mean the most to him, Dr. Porter recalled receiving the Daniel R. Tershak Memorial Teaching Award but also said “it is really the little things that matter in retrospect.” Some of those “little things” were being named “the most valuable professor” by the 2017 Lady Lions Softball Team and the thank you notes from past students letting Dr. Porter know that the notes they took in his class, helped them succeed in other courses.

At the end of the day, Dr. Porter is a teacher and a mentor and credits the interaction with his students as what he enjoyed the most throughout his career. A favorite memory of his was when a graduate student completed a small side project, as an add-on to an existing project, without consulting Dr. Porter. “The student thought up the experiment, conducted the research and presented the data.  It was a great compliment to the student’s main project and to see the student develop the ability to work semi-independently and turn out something very nice was a “wow that was great” moment.” According to Dr. Porter, “Making a difference in the lives of students is really front and center.”

Over his 39-year career at Penn State, Dr. Porter published 43 papers, presented 50 papers at various meetings, taught 11 different courses, supervised 8 graduate students, served on 43 graduate student committees and supervised 35 undergraduate student researchers.  He is the recipient of the Daniel R. Tershak Memorial Teaching Award and served on 3 National Science Foundation review panels.

Outside of the lab, Dr. Porter is the proud husband of Sara, the father of three sons and the grandfather of five granddaughters, all who live locally. In his retirement, Dr. Porter plans on catching-up on recreational reading and completing projects around the house that have been on “to-do” lists for a while.  Dr. Porter also plans to do some “puttering in the shop” and to get his guitar out and start playing it again.  He “plans on going one day at a time.”

Thank you, Dr. Porter, for your impact on, and dedication to, Penn State University as well as to the many students whose lives you have influenced in ways that you are most likely not aware of.  Stephanie Yancey, one of the 8 graduate students Dr. Porter supervised, said it best. “Thank you Ron for setting us all on our respective paths, whether we ended up in academia, in industry or in clinical research.  None of us would be here, where we are today, without you”.