When Bob Goldberg was a college student in the early '60s, most of his friends were going out on dates and hanging out in bars. Not Goldberg. He was spending his free time putting together leaf collections. "I just had this intellectual curiosity about plants," he says.
His interest in plants began during his first freshman botany class at Ohio University, in Athens. There, he also was exposed to the hot new field of genetics. The combination was irresistible.
Goldberg, now a distinguished professor of molecular, cell and developmental biology, has been on the faculty at UCLA for 27 years, focusing on one single goalhow to make a seed. This means identifying every gene in plant chromosomes and understanding its function.
"Why? Because seeds are the most important source of food worldwide," he says. "If we can understand how to make a seed genetically, we can make bigger seeds, better seeds, more nutritious seeds. With that, you can do a lot toward increasing food supplies."
With available agricultural land shrinking, "if you can plant more seeds in the same amount of space, you can keep the food supply flowing," he says. "It all comes back to seeds."
Goldberg believes that undergraduates who are not planning careers in science need more classroom exposure to science than they currently have because it is critical to understand how science affects their daily livesand their future careers. Too many of them have never experienced what he calls the "excitement of discovery."
As an HHMI Professor, he plans to design and teach a course that will show students who are not science majors the numerous ways science has an impact on society, for example, the social, legal and ethical issues that arise from emerging new genetic technologies. He hopes that a few undergraduates might even decide to change their majors and switch to science.
Science majors, who often do not have an opportunity to work in a real lab, will conduct hands-on research in his lab so they can learn about genes that play a role in early seed development. Goldberg also plans to use undergraduate molecular biology majors as teaching fellows. "I like to teach kids how to teach," he says.
Goldberg, who last year was elected to the National Academy of Sciences, loves teaching. He describes his classroom style as "radical and Socratic," with multimedia and microphones "and calling on kids long before anyone ever heard of Oprah Winfrey."