Spotlight: From the gift of a microscope, a life’s work


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Where there’s smoke, there’s… science?

That sounds unlikely, but for biology Professor Joseph Frankel, it was a pack of cigarettes that sparked a deep-seated passion he continues today.

In 1947 in Germany, a friend of Frankel’s father traded a pack of smokes for an old microscope, brought the instrument back to the United States, and gave it to an eager 12-year-old Frankel.

“I went out to local ponds, and looked at single-cell organisms, and studied them,” the 74-year-old said. “And then decided I really wanted to go into biology.”

It’s been more than 60 years since then, and Frankel, originally from Vienna, Austria, is still enjoying his life as a professor and researcher at the UI.

Even after 47 years of teaching biology, he still finds innovative ways to educate his students, thanks to a continually evolving field.

“There is one advantage to teaching biology over, say, teaching calculus or physics,” he said, sitting at his desk next to four tanks of liquid nitrogen — used to preserve his research organisms. “And that is that biology is such a young science. New discoveries are being made all the time.”

A colleague of his, Professor John Menninger, has been working with Frankel since 1973, and the two collaborate on the curriculum for the biology department. Menninger said he has a great deal of respect for Frankel, especially his dedication to the seminar aspect of teaching.

“He’s one of the most thorough readers and attentive listeners of biology seminars,” he said. “He’s the quintessential biology teacher.”

And when Frankel isn’t using those notes to improve his Principles of Biology II class, he is focused on his research, which specializes in protozoa — single-cell organisms — and using random mutations to alter the genetics of the cell to analyze how its structures are organized. He hopes such endeavors will assist future scientists, he said.

But lecturing huge classes and performing research can take its toll on almost any educator. However, Frankel — who studied at Cornell and Yale University — welcomes the challenge.

“The demands of teaching are greater,” he said. “You have to maintain websites, check up on students for plagiarism, all sorts of things. But it’s good that the demands of teaching are greater, because we have to pay more attention to our students.”

His continued devotion is reflected in the students he has taught.

UI graduate student Karen Thompson, a teaching assistant for Frankel’s biology class, once even had him as a professor, too.

“He has a deep passion and really explains things well,” she said. “Energetic sums him up pretty well.”

The still young-at-heart Frankel has a lot of years to look back on.

“You never get everything you want in life,” he said. “My goal was to be at a large research university, in a small town, and near the mountains. I got two out of three.”

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