Geoff Waldbieser’s advice? “Eat more catfish. It’s good for you.” He’s holding this 40-pound blue catfish in front of a pond that contains a thousand more like it at the National Warmwater Aquaculture Research Center in Mississippi.
This article is the 10th in a series highlighting the 2014 recipients of the Purdue University College of Agriculture’s Distinguished Agriculture Alumni Award. The award honors mid-career alumni who have a record of outstanding accomplishments, have made significant contributions to their profession or society, and have exhibited high potential for professional growth.
The 11 honorees are John Becherer, Lynda M. Ciuffetti, Johann (Joe) R. Garwood, Anetra L. Harbor, Carl C. Kincaid, Donald J. Leopold, Maurício Antônio Lopes, Nicholas L. Rozzi, S. Richard Tolman, Geoffrey C. Waldbieser and Carla N. Yerkes. They will receive their awards Friday, March 7, during a public reception and convocation in the Purdue Memorial Union North Ballroom.
Geoff Waldbieser received all three of his degrees from Purdue University (BS ’83, MS ’85, PhD ’89) before becoming a research molecular biologist for the United States Department of Agriculture and an adjunct graduate faculty member in the College of Veterinary Medicine at Mississippi State University.
Based in Stoneville, Miss., Waldbieser and his research team have focused on genetic improvement of channel and blue catfish, which are the most economically important aquacultured species in the United States and are also grown throughout the world.
His research has focused on DNA-based identification methods to produce pedigreed research populations, and he currently leads efforts to sequence the genomes of these two species to facilitate selection for economically important traits. Waldbieser has authored or co-authored more than 85 research publications and has given numerous research presentations at national and international scientific conferences.
He is a key scientist for the development of genomic resources for catfish, which continue to be essential for continued genetic selection.
Which Purdue faculty member had the most profound impact on your professional career? Larry Chrisman (Department of Animal Sciences) was most influential in my development as a scientist. During my junior year, I volunteered in his lab. It was a watershed moment when I saw my own chromosomes under a microscope. Dr. Chrisman was my major professor for both the master’s and doctoral degrees. He was a terrific mentor and a good friend. He recognized something in me that could be developed into something useful. He established a research collaboration with Dr. Jack Dixon (Department of Biochemistry) that enabled us to make the first transgenic mice at Purdue.
William Frey, the manager of Tarkington Hall, also influenced me significantly. I worked for him as a counselor my senior year and as a staff resident for the two years of my master’s program. It was a great job that I would recommend to anyone, and I liked being able to help the residents have a more enjoyable Purdue experience. Mr. Frey was a modest and effective leader, and an interesting man. He encouraged us to go the extra mile for those under our charge. He taught us to be active, empathetic listeners, which really changed my way of going from that point forward —amazing how many people just want someone to listen.
What part of your visit back to campus in March are you most looking forward to? I look forward to showing Purdue to my children. I will try to get to the Triple XXX — it’s been at least 25 years since my last Duane Purvis All-American burger.
Why did you select Purdue as the place to continue your education? I was raised in Indiana — first in Boonville, then in Brownsburg. We raised animals, which led me to an interest in a career as a veterinarian, so Purdue was the logical choice. During my junior year at Purdue, I had to decide between an acceptance to vet school or graduate research. Dr. Chrisman made genetic research so interesting and compelling that I chose graduate school.
Where was your favorite place on campus to study? I tried places like the Sweet Shop and the Stewart library, but I was easily distracted. I was just studying other people. I studied most effectively in my room at Wiley and Tarkington, and in my apartment during graduate school.
What do you miss most about your college days at Purdue? Friends. I was at Purdue from August ’79 to May ’91, so I made a lot of friends. The core group was the guys on the southwest fourth floor of Wiley Hall who stayed together through the undergraduate years. After four seasons, we finally won the intramural football championship, which was very gratifying at the time. I still keep in touch with several of them.
On the first crisp, sunny autumn day, I think about being at Ross-Ade Stadium and miss that atmosphere. I miss the energy of basketball games at Mackey Arena. Usually the first thing Mississippians my age or older recall about Purdue is Gene Keady, although Drew Brees is beginning to change that. In the springtime, I remember how amazing campus smelled when everything was in bloom. I don’t miss walking to class in below-zero (wind chill) temperatures, but it’s good to know what you’re capable of surviving.
Were you a good student when you were at Purdue? Yes. My parents raised me to work first and play later, so academics came first. I didn’t skip classes and found that there was enough time to get the work done as long as I didn’t goof off. My only all-nighter came during my last week of grad school, when I stayed up finishing and printing my PhD dissertation to get it to my committee on time.
What was the most difficult course you took at Purdue? What made it so difficult for you? Physics 220T/221T as an undergraduate, not because the material was hard to understand but because there was so much work for those of us who took it as self-tutorial. Each week my roommate, Scott Klein, and I would say, “If I can just get through this week, I think I can make it.” As a graduate student, Dr. Wyman Nyquist’s graduate course in statistics (Agronomy 552) was tough due to the amount of information to assimilate and the huge amount of work. He actually brought snacks to us during the final exam because he knew we’d be there several hours.
What is the best advice you got while you were at Purdue? Who gave you the advice? Dr. Chrisman advised me to develop a “big bag of tricks,” basically broadening my learning and skills so when I graduated I would have flexibility in my career. He was a proponent of learning to communicate science to a general audience and gave me many opportunities to teach or talk to an audience. I was rough at first but improved with each experience. Dr. Chrisman would also encourage me to continue learning. One of his sayings was, “Don’t get so far behind the parade that you think you’re leading it.” On another note, Mr. Frey said, “You can’t go wrong marrying a Mississippi woman,” — as he did. That worked out pretty well for me, too.
What is the best advice you have ever given? To whom did you give the advice? Eat more U.S. farm-raised catfish. It’s good for you.
Humility, self-sacrifice and delayed gratification are valuable. Praise is always better coming from someone other than yourself. Don’t waste your time on envy. If you’re like me, then you admire those who give of themselves, so we should all work to be that kind of person.
I would remind students that you will leave Purdue with a terrific education, but wisdom comes from experience, so develop relationships and learn from experienced people. Sometimes you’ll only learn what not to do, but that’s valuable. Remember that you’re special and unique, just like everyone else, so be ready and willing to do the work, because the world does not owe you a living. Often, you’ll just have to be content with the personal satisfaction of a job well done.
Hopefully you’ve learned how to learn, because you must continue learning to be relevant as knowledge and technology expand (although human nature doesn’t seem to change much). I think it boils down to: Learn from the past, live in the present, look to the future.
And if you’re going to act like a fool, then don’t mention any linkage with Purdue so the rest of us aren’t implicated by association.
Coming next: Carla N. Yerkes, BS '82, MS '85, PhD '95
Read about other 2014 Distinguished Agriculture Alumni Award winners.