Loved ones, friends remember Ron Taylor

by Noah Goldstein | 3/30/16 5:50pm

Ron Taylor was called "notoriously social" by those who knew him.
Source: Courtesy of Caitlyn Hauke

Geisel School of Medicine professor Ron Taylor wanted to be known as somebody who never said no. A lifelong scientist and dedicated colleague, he was devoted to his research pursuits and the community that surrounded him, his partner and fellow microbiology professor Paula Sundstrom said. Taylor died of a heart attack at the age of 62 on Saturday. He had been at Dartmouth since 1993.

“Sometimes he was so busy, I would try to say, ‘You have so many things other things only you can do, someone else can do that,’” Sundstrom said. “He would never have any of that, his phrase for that was ‘That’s just what I do.’”

To Geisel professor George O’Toole, Taylor was a colleague, a friend and a mentor. They met when O’Toole was interviewing for a faculty position, as Taylor was the head of the search committee.

O’Toole made his decision to come to Dartmouth in large part due to Taylor’s personality.

“He was just a happy, joyous, interactive person. He was enthusiastic about his science and about life and about Dartmouth. He put a great face on the institution in a way that was hard to deny,” O’Toole said, “He had that effect on people. He just made them happy.”

Caitlyn Hauke, a graduate student working in Taylor’s lab, was one of many who wanted a chance to work under him.

Hauke first met Taylor when she was a senior in college interviewing for positions in labs. Before hearing the results of her interview, Hauke knew that she wanted to be in his lab.

“Ron was a really approachable person. He was very friendly. He was always rooting for us and fighting for us,” Hauke said. “I found that he was really easy to connect to. Every time I would go to his office — he always knew it was me because I had this special way of knocking, apparently — he would turn around and have this big grin on his face.”

Hauke described Taylor as being “notoriously sociable.” Whenever he went to a conference, he knew everyone there. She said that she was not sure if she would have made it through the challenges of graduate school if it were not for him.

Within days of Taylor’s passing, O’Toole received texts and emails from all over the country sending their condolences.

“He would always have a group of people standing around him talking with him about whatever topic happened to be interesting that day. People were just attracted to him,” O’Toole said.

Sundstrom remembered him mentoring people at all levels.

“He gets people to do their best, and that’s not by him telling them what to do. It’s by being an environment where they can pursue their passions and interests and drive their own ideas in an environment that’s got a lot of creative thinking people that feed off of each other,” Sundstrom said, “He doesn’t discriminate, no matter what you’re doing in our area, whether you’re taking care of our glassware or keeping our facilities clean and beautiful or doing support work for projects and grants, you’re an equal part of the team.”

Taylor was always happy, Hauke recalled. Even when he had large amounts of work, he was always smiling and never negative.

While Taylor loved being at Dartmouth, he did not love the cold weather. Every year he would spend a week somewhere warm, Hauke said.

Taylor was constantly working — seven days a week he was in the lab. In addition to his research, he was also an advisor to many students, worked to secure grant funding, taught classes, was on multiple committees, ran the microbiology program and headed the IDeA Networks of Biomedical Research Excellence and Microbiology and Molecular Pathogenisis programs.

Chair of the microbiology and immunology department William Green explained INBRE, which is a federal grant from the National Institutes of Health deals with strong research universities and colleges, The program trains students and postdoctoral fellows and has state-of-the-art infrastructure. Throughout New Hampshire, eight small colleges and universities have been part of this INBRE outreach, which exposes students to higher levels of scientific research, Green said. Taylor was the primary investigator for the grant.

The Microbiology and Molecular Pathogenesis program, also known as M2P2, is a training grant program.

“If you want to understand what a great colleague and friend would be, you’d look up Ron Taylor,” Green said. “He just hit all the bases of this — his infectious enthusiasm and way of getting things done. He was incredibly reliable.”

Taylor’s research focused on cholera, specifically finding a vaccine for it. He made large contributions to the scientific community’s understanding of how cholera causes diseases at a molecular level, O’Toole said.

Dean of graduate studies Jon Kull worked with Taylor for the past 10 years on cholera research.

“He was not just scientifically giving, but he also gave to Dartmouth as an institution in terms of helping us get training grants,” Kull said.

Taylor’s absence is felt strongly at Dartmouth, Kull said, as he would always step up to do extra work. He said that he hopes that he can keep Taylor’s lab running and their work going.

Biology professor Mary Lou Guerinot was part of the search committee that first hired Taylor. To Guerinot, Taylor’s research, ability as a scientist and outgoing personality were all reasons why she wanted to hire him.

Since then, she has taught “Microbiology” with him for over 20 years. Guerinot and Taylor would always have a lighthearted competition over the course evaluations, which he would always be excited to win.

“Students really related to him,” she said. “That always helps, especially if you’re teaching science material.”

Taylor was instrumental in bringing Deborah Hogan, a professor of microbiology and immunology, to the College. He chaired the search committee that hired her, and they have been colleagues since.

“We will miss him. He is impossible to replace,” Hogan said. “He modeled for us and instilled in us that a big job of being a faculty member is to contribute to the community.”

Taylor’s knack for building community extended beyond the walls of academia. Hailing from Rochester, New York, Taylor was a huge fan of the Buffalo Bills football team. He would invite members of his lab over to watch them play the Patriots, Hauke recalled.

John Sutherland, a research associate in Taylor’s lab, said that he enjoyed talking to Taylor about football. Sutherland said he was always impressed when he went to conferences with Taylor, as Taylor would stay out late socializing and would still be the first person in a lecture the next morning.

When he first applied to work in Taylor’s lab, his previous boss told him that he had to meet Taylor. After applying, he understood why.

“If he was in a crowded room, a lot of people would want to talk to him, but he would still do a good job of giving you his attention,” Sutherland said. “He was an extremely busy guy, but if we had a question or a problem, he always made time to put us in the right direction,”

Taylor had a great memory for details, Sutherland said. For example, he once remembered a specialty of Sutherland’s that Sutherland had not practiced in 15 years.

As a child, Taylor loved to go to the botanical gardens to look at the birds and insects there, Sundstrom said. He enjoyed telling the story of how he found a dead bird and proceeded to dissect it. He found a sharp leaf that had cut through its organs and concluded that the cut was the cause of death.

“That’s the kind of curiosity he had about life before any of his professional training,” Sundstrom said. “I think it shows that at heart he’s interested in biology.”

Catherine Feuille ’15 was the most recent undergraduate student to complete an honors thesis in Taylor’s lab. Taylor had a unique mindset as a scientist, Feuille wrote in an email. Often, she said, scientific researchers get stuck in a mindset in which their biggest motivation is proving their own theories, rather than working to uncover new truths about the world.

Feuille recounted a time when one of Taylor’s Ph.D. students was angry because she “wanted the data [from her results] to show something else.” Taylor then replied “We don’t want anything! We just want the truth,” to which everyone burst out laughing. For the rest of the meeting, Feuille had a smile on her face.

Princeton University biology professor Tom Silhavy, whose lab Taylor worked in while working towards his Ph.D., wrote in an email that he was always very proud of Taylor’s accomplishments.

“I want his family to know that Taylor was well known and highly regarded in the microbiology scientific community,” Silhavy said. “He will be sorely missed by many but never forgotten.”

Hauke said that she hopes Taylor’s research will be continued.

“We kind of owe it to him to keep working on his projects,” she said.

Kull still remembers a sentiment Taylor shared about being a professor at Dartmouth during a conversation they had at the Hanover Inn.

“‘It is like a place where no one gets old, except for us,’” Kull recalled Taylor saying. “‘If you think about it, the students are always coming in young and graduating, and the place is always beautiful. Sitting here as a professor, we age, but everything stays beautiful.’”

A funeral service for Taylor is planned for April 2 in Rochester, New York. The College will also be holding a memorial service in the coming weeks.