DeLuca Celebration Stories

Black-and-white photo of Hector DeLuca
Hector DeLuca earned his Ph.D. under Harry Steenbock and became a faculty member in 1959. He became an Emeritus Professor in 2011.

Sometimes in life brief impromptu conversations have lasting impact. One morning after the very early Friday morning DeLuca Lab Meeting, I lingered with a few other graduate students over breakfast talking about the value of basic science and how critical it was to society. Someone in the group opined on how frustrating it was that the public did not understand true basic science. Overhearing a few youthful, somewhat disparaging comments over the public’s lack of appreciation for basic science, Hector joined the conversation. He passionately told us that we as scientists must be able to clearly articulate to those supporting the research why it is important. He continued…the farmers in Wisconsin that support UW deserve to understand how the research at the University will benefit their farms, the state, and society. As I have progressed in my career in both basic science and pharmaceutical research, this memorable conversation became a guidepost to continually reflect on who are the key stakeholders and making sure I am keeping patients as the center of my scientific work. I know that I am one of many who have been profoundly impacted by Hector. I am grateful for the privilege of being trained and coached by Hector while I was a graduate student in the biochemistry department.

Tom Brown, Ph.D. 1989, Medical Director, Alnylam Pharmaceuticals

The DeLuca lab was an exciting place for me as a graduate student. The isolation and identification of 25-OH-D had occurred shortly before I joined the lab. While I pursued my graduate work, 1,25(OH)2D was isolated, identified, and its biological properties explored.

This group of folks, who worked hard and played hard, created many memorable times. One fall day all of us, including Hector, collected chicken intestines at a processing plant in central WI. On another, we braved a WI blizzard to help isolate intestinal mucosa from chickens dosed with a radioactive tracer for the isolation of what would prove to be 1,25(OH)2D.

Everyone shared in the challenges and excitement of advancing Hector’s vision for the basic science and for the application of vitamin D metabolism.

During this time, Hector was frequently gone, giving invited lectures or accepting awards and prizes. We ‘lab rats’ decided, in fun, that Hector’s office could be put to better use in his absence. We put a ‘For Rent’ sign on the door. Before he returned, we filled the office with balloons and put a scarecrow in a lab coat at his desk with a mug of coffee. I am very pleased that Hector has subsequently made good use of his office, and he was there to celebrate his 90th birthday milestone. I still remember his 40th celebration! Many thanks for the memories, Hector, and all my best wishes.

Joyce Clark Knutson, Ph.D. 1973, Wonderfully retired.

I remember Hector’s 65th birthday. We had buttons made that said Happy 65th birthday. I was on the elevator when someone entered, saw my button and asked if it was my birthday. I was 44 at the time. My mouth literally dropped open. Here it is a quarter of a century later and I am wondering where the time has gone. I spent more than a third of my life working for Hector and want to express my appreciation to Hector for that opportunity. Hector was, and I am confident continues to be, a very supportive leader and boss — as evidenced by the loyalty and longevity of many of his former and current staff members. Thank you, Hector. I wish you many more years of health and satisfaction in your work.

Wendy Hellwig, Nearly 26 years as Lab Manager in the Hector DeLuca lab.

I started working for Hector when I was pregnant with my second child, Gabriella who is now 25. A few years after that Margaret was pregnant with Martin and we had a funny conversation about child birth. I told Hector that in the 1990s, he would need to be present in the delivery room for the birth and not in a bar waiting to hear the outcome. We had a good laugh. Working with Hector was a lot of fun and there was much laughter. What has stuck with me over the years is if you make work fun, success is more likely. Hector and I did not always agree on the interpretation of the data. Those discussions made me better and were part of the fun. Happy birthday to my mentor, colleague and friend.

Love and hugs, Margherita

Margherita T. Cantorna, 1994-1998, Distinguished Professor Pennsylvania State University

Doing my doctoral work with Hector provided the foundation for my scientific career. I learned so many things from my time in his lab at UW Madison. Most importantly, I learned how to do science: how to identify important questions, how to think about them, and how to plan experiments, including the needed controls. Perhaps most of all, Hector taught me that science is always changing and that to keep up, it was important to embrace new challenges. As one example, Margaret Dame and I wanted to make antibodies to the 1,25–dihydroxyvitamin D3 receptor, but we weren’t able to purify the protein to homogeneity. Hector arranged for us to work with Colleen Hayes to be trained in how to make monoclonal antibodies, which was a hot new technique at the time. We wound up with several great antibodies that catalyzed our research. I’ve tried to convey this spirit of being open to new things to the students and postdocs in my group since I started my own lab. In addition to being a great mentor, Hector also became a good friend. I am thrilled to wish him a happy 90th birthday.

Eric Pierce, Ph.D. 1986, Chatlos Professor of Ophthalmology, Director, Ocular Genomics Institute, Harvard Medical School, Mass Eye and Ear, Boston, MA

One piece of scientific advice that he spouted continually in my memory: “If you ask small questions, it’s very likely you’ll get small answers. If you ask big questions, you are much more likely to get big answers.” He always encouraged scientific risk with reason – and to dream big in this endeavor. An anecdote: I had my first child in graduate school and found out I was pregnant shortly after my prelims. I was very nervous about telling him because it was extremely uncommon then, more than even now, to have a child as a graduate student. I told many lab mates and they shared my fear about telling him, with wagers going out on how badly and in just what manner he would explode when I told him. I chose a time right after it had been my turn to present lab meeting. I felt like I had produced a lot of data and he would be happy about that, and I knew there would be time alone after others had left and he stayed to give feedback, as he always did. I mustered up great courage and plowed into the news. About half-way through my pre-planned discussion, he started smiling then laughing, congratulating me and finding humor in that I was so afraid to tell him. He said quite a few things, but what I remember the most is his comment on my future in science (something I did not bring up and may not have thought through completely at that point). He said that, in his view, some people make it in science and some don’t, but that he did not think it would have much to do with when you have a family; that one either perseveres or one does not and this was very unlikely to be the factor that mattered. That always stuck with me in my years of training and beyond.

Deneen M Wellik, Ph.D. 1995, Professor and Chair of Cell & Regenerative Biology here at SMPH (UW-Madison)

I started my PhD in Hector’s lab in 1991, and initially I had little understanding of the stature of the man that was about to shape me into not only the scientist, but also the person I am today. Eventually I understood. I had a passion for research, I was determined, and I was independent so I very much appreciated Hector’s off-hand mentoring style. I would diligently conduct experiments until I hit dead-ends, and all it took was just short conversations with Hector for him to come up with the ideas to propel me into the next phase. To me they were always brilliant ideas and I marveled how they would come so easily. Some of my colleagues referred to Hector as “the God of vitamin D” many years later, that’s the kind of impact he had made to the field but his large research group of >30 people had open doors for just about anyone that needed an opportunity. He could have been elitist and chosen only the best for his lab, but instead he gave everyone a chance and generated excellence. His humbleness was exemplary. In addition to providing me with an environment conducive to learning, teaching me how to undertake well-designed experiments, giving me confidence to undertake leadership roles, teaching me to write scientific papers (I take particular pleasure when reviewers comment that “this manuscript is well written”), Hector has been a friend: he has lent me a shoulder to cry on when needed, and has always helped and supported not only me, but also my family. I’m lucky that I still get to work with Hector in my present job many years after I left the lab. Happy 90th Hector, I hope you can visit me in Switzerland soon.

Claudia Zierold, Ph.D. 1995, in lab from 1991 to 2006, Technology Scouting and Scientific Affairs for DiaSorin

While in grad school, I never wore a skirt or dress (because why would one dress up to be in lab???), and Hector noted that. He offered to wear a kilt for a day if I would wear a dress for a day. I agreed, bought a dress, and showed up to lab. Terry Meehan, another grad student, had two “kilts” (basically plaid skirts) made, one for him and one for Hector. They changed over the lunch hour, and we went out by Elmer the tree for a photo op. Most of biochemistry showed up for a photo op of Hector in a kilt. (photo above)

Beth Werner, Ph.D. 2001, Director Intellectual Property, Life Science WARF, Madison, WI

Congratulations on your 90th birthday and successful career in vitamin D research. I also want to celebrate your longevity with the appreciation for your lifelong friendship. I spent two years and seven months (from July 1968 to January 1971) as a postdoctoral fellow in your laboratory. It was indeed an unforgettable time. While I was in Madison, I worked on the isolation and identification of vitamin D metabolites including 25(OH)D2, 25,26(OH)2D3, 1α,25(OH)2D3, and 24,25(OH)2D3. I enjoyed lab work with wonderful colleagues including Mike Holick, Heinrich Schnoes, John Blunt, Yoko Tanaka, Gerard Ponchon, Bob Cousins, Maryka Horsting, Tai Chen, Jack Omdahl, Ian Boyle, and many other excellent colleagues. After I came back to Tokyo, we synthesized 1α(OH)D3 as a synthetic analog of 1α,25(OH)2D3 and reported that 1α(OH)D3 is rapidly and quantitatively converted into 1α,25(OH)2D3 in the liver. 1α(OH)D3 has been used as a therapeutic drug for treating metabolic bone diseases such as renal osteodystrophy and osteoporosis in Japan. In 1998, we discovered osteoclast differentiation factor (ODF) as a key molecule for osteoclast formation, which was induced by 1α,25(OH)2D3. Hector kindly communicated this paper for publication in PNAS, USA (95: 3597-3602). The citation of this paper attained over 4,600. Hector taught me not only “biochemistry of vitamin D”, but also “how science is fun”. On this occasion, I would like to thank you for your lifelong collaboration and heartfelt friendship.

Tatsuo Suda, D.D.Sc., Postdoc 1968-1971, Emeritus Professor of Showa University, Japan, Member of the Japan Academy

On April 1st, 1983 I accepted a position in Hector DeLuca’s laboratory to work in his lab as a cell biologist. I began my 35 years as an employee somewhat proficient in cell culture. Hector was always willing to discuss our research, and explore new ideas. After some time Hector put me in charge of cell culture in his laboratory. I began working primarily with two of his outstanding graduate students (Margaret Dame, and Eric Pierce), then eventually the entire lab followed by many graduate students and scientists.

Anyone who knows Hector, knows he likes his wine, so with my experience in cell culture, I soon began to culture yeast for wine fermentation, and always being grateful, he repaid me with wine. Hector was also known for his legendary “Pig Roasts”, with many families and friends. We all had fun, playing games, and experiencing new foods.

During my time in the DeLuca lab, I was given opportunities to expand my knowledge in Biotechnology, stem cells, clinical trial monitoring. Hector is always appreciative of honest work and good results!

Jean Prahl, Research Program Manager, retired 2017

Though I learned an enormous amount of biochemistry from Hector during my time in his laboratory, the greater impact he made on me was his subtle life lessons and there were many. One which stands out happened when his laboratory took a group ski trip out to Colorado. We were over 25 people. Group lift tickets were $5.00 to $8.00 back then … THAT’s how long ago it was (1978). Many of your readers know Hector is an extraordinarily accomplished downhill skier. He probably still is.

I was having a difficult time with the mogul run. Moguls are quite large bumps in the hill which are carved by skiers on ungroomed runs. They are very difficult to manage. I asked for his advice getting through these and he said: “ski this run and I’ll watch you from down below”. Afterword, I skied over to him and he said: “you’re doing great George, but you’re making one mistake. You’re looking at the tips of your skis. You can’t really do anything about where you are, you can only change where you’re going”. BOOM! That was my life lesson. I sometimes wondered if it was just a casual remark but I don’t think so. Hector always had a talent for teaching you things you didn’t even know you needed to learn. He has no idea how much I think about that “life lesson” even today.

He asked me once if I could organize the laboratory chemicals we kept in a small room. It is easy to forget that some chemicals should be safely discarded after a certain period of time so I could transport them to the UW Safety department. What did I find but this bottle of cystine from one H.F. DeLuca, Desk 86. The yield was 2.7 gm or 5.4% from hair. Hector completed this experiment on December 16, 1951. He would have been a student of Dr. Harry Steenbock at the time. Naturally, I could never discard this piece of history. It has been with me on my desk these 43 years as a reminder to “always keep an eye out to change where you are going”.

Thank you so much for letting me relive this wonderful part of my life.

George Bednar, M.S. 1980, OEM Accounts Manager, Gilson, Inc., Middleton, WI