Biochemistry faculty profile – Professor Richard Amasino

Rick Amasino Headshot
Professor Richard Amasino.

Please tell us a little about yourself. Where did you grow up? Where did you go to school?

I was born and grew up in small town about 25 miles east of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. I attended the local Catholic grade school and high school, then went to Penn State for undergraduate studies. I did my Ph.D. work at Indiana University in Bloomington and then did a postdoc at the University of Washington in Seattle.

As a child, who was your biggest influence?

Reading was a bigger influence than any one person, but the nuns who taught grade school were great science teachers and I appreciated Sister Helen Marie letting me know when I was quite young that she also thought the process of evolution was the best explanation for the diversity of life on earth.

Why did you decide to study science?

For as far back as I can remember, I have been intrigued by how living things operate. My earliest childhood memories are of growing plants and collecting insects, spiders, worms, crustaceans, and snakes to observe for a while before releasing them.

Why did you come to Madison? When?

I came to Madison in the fall of 1985. I accepted the UW offer over several others because of the colleagues I would have here. Also, in the basement of a Biochemistry building (which has since been demolished) there was a suite of plant growth chambers that were essential for my research program. However, the plant growth chambers had not been used for many years, and when I arrived and put in a work order to get them running, I learned they were beyond repair. It took well over a year to get that facility back up and running, but in the interim we explored some different directions that turned out to be interesting as well.

What do you like most about being a professor?

The privileges of being able to teach, and to explore how life works.

What is the focus of your research?

Most recently, to understand the biochemical mechanisms that plants have evolved to flower at a particular time of the year. Specifically, we have focused on how the seasonal cues of changing daylength and exposure to winter cold are perceived and translated into the developmental response of flowering.

What do you consider your major accomplishments?

When we began our work on flowering, the only thing known at a biochemical level about how perception of seasonal cues lead to flowering was the identity of one light receptor involved in daylength sensing (phytochrome). Starting with genetic screens, we were the first lab to isolate “flowering genes,” and our work on these genes (and that of other labs worldwide) have revealed many of the biochemical details of how plants perceive and respond to changing daylength and exposure to winter cold.

What advice would you provide to a new assistant professor who is just starting his/her career?

Follow your interests and try to be patient.

When you are not working, what do you like to do?

Run, cook, listen to music, and garden.

Favorite Quote:

Considering the range of views on things like climate change, vaccinations, etc., one that is perhaps more appropriate today than when it was first said:

“It ain’t what we don’t know that gets us into trouble, it’s what we know for sure that just ain’t so.” -Unknown

BTW, I have found many versions of this quote attributed to a range of people, and the source and original wording is not clear.

Friends Describe Me:

I don’t know; you will have to ask them.

Fantasy Dinner Guests:

If I could go back in time and with a limit of 10: Cleopatra, Confucius, Galileo Galilei, Charles Dickens, Pierre-Simon Laplace, Charles Darwin, Marie Curie, Benjamin Franklin, Kurt Vonnegut, and a Neandertal family.

Best Advice I Ever Received:

Always maintain a sense of humor.

My Worst Subject In School:

The lowest grade I ever received was in a high school typing course, which was graded on mistake-free words per minute.

If I Weren’t A Professor, I Would:

Be a plant breeder.

In College I Drove:

An old, beat-up Schwinn bicycle.

Favorite Books:

“On the Origin of Species” because it was revolutionary, beautifully written, and a model of effective science communication.

“Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems” for the same reasons as ‘On the Origin of Species’ and also because of the way humor and satire is used (although Pope Urban VIII did not share my view of the humor and satire).

Everything by Charles Dickens and Kurt Vonnegut.

Favorite City:

The 1984 version of Seattle when I was there as a postdoc. And Madison of course.

Favorite Movies:

Inherit the Wind, Twelve Angry Men, Invasion of the Body Snatchers.

Nobody Knows I:

Worked as a chef in a French restaurant.