The Office of the President Emeritus: University of Oregon

Speeches and Writings

"The Zebrafish Talk"

October 24, 2003

Dave Frohnmayer, President
University of Oregon

Thank you. Foundation Trustees, Colleagues and Honored Guests...

This is the address you may remember as "The Zebrafish Talk."

I would guess - perhaps even bet - that no other college or university president in America - let's say the world - will offer a beginning of the year talk to faculty, staff and guests that will be entitled "The Zebrafish Talk."

Perhaps for good reason - not withstanding this 50th anniversary of Crick and Watson's elucidation of the DNA double helix, and the dawn of the Age of Biology - but we'll see ...

Let's look at the Zebrafish, because I believe that the zebrafish - Danio rerio - and its story at the University of Oregon, says a great deal about where and what this university is.

Zebrafish, Danio rerio, are freshwater fish that were originally found in slow streams and rice paddies and in the Ganges River in East India and Burma. They were brought to the University of Oregon by George Streisinger.

George Streisinger is rightly considered by his peers to be the founding giant of zebrafish research. At the end of his life, his evolving research focused on how genetic mutations affect nervous system development in lower vertebrates.

Dr. Streisinger's research made major and lasting contributions in deciphering the genetic code, understanding the nature of frameshift mutations and the structure of the T4 phage genome.

He dreamed of using the power of the same molecular principles to study the genetics and development of a vertebrate. As a fish hobbyist who knew how easy it was to raise and maintain zebrafish, he began using it as a model system. The fish was small enough to keep the large numbers required for genetic studies and large enough to do classical embryological manipulations such as transplantations. It also was especially suited to this work because the zebrafish female carries its embryo outside its body and the embryo is transparent, therefore allowing scientists to observe the development of life in a fertilized egg from the very first cell division. Its genome is humblingly similar to homo sapiens. It is an extraordinarily powerful investigative tool and it was brilliant of Streisinger to have selected it as his model organism.

And, more than fifteen years before Dolly the Scottish sheep achieved fame, zebrafish had been cloned here at this University - the first vertebrates to be cloned in the history of science. This was a daring step and Streisinger was keenly aware of the skepticism of some of his colleagues. He had waited ten years to publish his very first zebrafish paper in the eminent journal, Nature. It took courage, confidence and commitment to carry forward with his work.

Following Dr. Streisinger's untimely death in 1984 from a cardiac arrest while preparing for his scuba diving certification, his lab members strove to keep his research progressing. In a letter written one week later, one of his postdocs, David Jonah Grunwald, describes the loss to the lab. "Our lab and the Institute were very devoted to George. He extended an enormous amount of enthusiasm and support for our work and for our personal lives. George had very broad interests that spanned beyond the borders of his expertise. Virtually all members of the Institute (of Molecular Biology) discussed, sporadically or often, their scientific results with him. His range of interests, his willingness to reflect on the activities of others, and his generous spirit combined to make him a central force in guiding and maintaining the communal atmosphere of the Institute."

Fortunately for the future of zebrafish research, Dr. Charles Kimmel, a professor in the Institute of Neuroscience, who had been encouraged by Dr. Streisinger to work with zebrafish, stepped in to "adopt" the lab and to continue the work in developmental genetics.

George Streisinger's research legacy is still being carried on by his colleagues at the University of Oregon. These include the labs of Drs. Charles Kimmel, Monte Westerfield, Judith Eisen, and John Postlethwait.

Today, the Zebrafish International Resource Center main facility measures 10,000 square feet. There are four additional research laboratories and a significant data base facility for zebrafish-related research.

Professor Streisinger's proven use of the zebrafish in research has spread to 350 developmental and genetics labs in more than 30 countries. At least one has produced a Nobel Prize winner. Many of the mutant strains produced in the Streisinger Lab are still alive and well in labs throughout the world and are being used to help provide answers to human and animal health issues, therapies for genetic diseases, mechanisms for understanding human life processes at their core - and providing a well-deserved legacy for a true pioneer.

During the course of his scientific career, Dr. Streisinger was given several prestigious awards. He was a Guggenheim Fellow in 1972. In 1975, after being at the University of Oregon for 15 years, he was selected as a member of the National Academy of Sciences, making him only the second Oregonian to receive this distinction.

And now, as many of you may have read in the full-page article in the Oregonian science section on Wednesday, we have just received grants totaling $15 million from the National Institutes of Health to expand the Zebrafish International Resource Center -- $8 million for our database from the National Human Genome Research Institute and $7 million for the stock center from the National Center for Research Resources. We will double the size of our staff to 40 and be able to meet better the needs of the researchers working around the world on zebrafish projects. The number of NIH-supported projects in the United States alone has increased from fewer than 25 to more than 200 in the past decade.


Why, you may have been asking yourselves for the past several minutes, am I learning more about an animal called a zebrafish than I will ever use for the rest of my life?

One easy response is that convocations such as this draw richness from recalling cultural legends and saluting the heroic paths of daring discovery. But I also believe that history is prologue, that what has been done sets a tone for what can and will be done.

In 1925, long before any of the current challenges facing Oregon could even be dreamed of, the acerbic journalist from Baltimore, H.L. Mencken had some rather dour observations about our state:

"Oregon," he wrote, "is seldom heard of. Its people ... hold that all radicals should be lynched. It has no poets and no statesmen."

I believe Mr. Mencken's overview of the state was - perhaps a bit of an overgeneralization - even at the time.

Today, most would argue that at least some change has taken place.

Yet, it always is a struggle for any people to put bias aside, respect the beliefs of others, and bring forth men and women who by their words and actions can truly be called statesmen.

It is a struggle in which higher education - and specifically for Oregon, the University of Oregon - has played a vital and historic role.

Granted, looking back is, at times, of dubious value.

Ambrose Bierce in his "Devil's Dictionary," defined history as: "An account mostly false, of events mostly unimportant, which are brought about by rulers mostly knaves, and soldiers mostly fools."

But others have seen the value of history - its means of enlightening, however imperfectly, the future by means of seeing the past ...

... its ability to inspire future deeds by example of past ones ...

... its connection with the men and women of the past, with their accomplishments (and their failures) ...

... its ability to clear the windshield to the future, if you will, via the vision offered through the rearview mirror.

"History," wrote Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr., "by putting crisis in perspective, supplies the antidote to every generation's illusion that its own problems are uniquely oppressive."

One hundred years ago Frank Strong was president of the University of Oregon.

Shortly after becoming president in 1899, President Strong made a forceful statement on what the life of a university may or may not become:

"The state university," he said, "if it fulfills its function, must become the center of the intellectual life of the state. It has no right to exist unless it becomes the center of power from which radiates streams of influence touching every part of the commonwealth."

He was saying, in effect, that the university - this university - must play its role in history, within the state and beyond.

George Streisinger and his zebrafish are but one example of that role. And hard times do not get us off the hook - no pun intended.


I have only been president of the University of Oregon for 10 years - a short time in the now 127-year history of this university - but a long enough time to understand both the ways in which we have fulfilled that challenge laid down by Frank Strong - and the ongoing challenges inherent in "radiating those streams of influence touching every part of the commonwealth."

In those 10 years ...

I have seen growth on this campus unprecedented since the 1920s - growth directly connected to the quality of the education we offer.

I have seen competitively awarded research grants increase from what could kindly be called "modest amounts" to this year's $78 million.

I have seen professors in mathematics, sociology, history, languages, economics, biology and many other fields push themselves to create innovative classes that stretch the minds of their students and set examples for their fellow teachers.

I have seen the quality of our incoming freshmen improve continuously as we attract more of the best and the brightest.

I have seen the Oregon Campaign, the state's largest fundraising drive ever, raise more than $255 million for student scholarships, endowed chairs, and building and renovation projects.

Each of these things moves us closer to that ability to "touch every part of the commonwealth."

But I also have seen the downside ... The wrenching disappointments born of larger failures in vision and wisdom.

I have seen state dollars dwindle to the point that we can no longer truthfully call ourselves a "state supported university," but rather a "state assisted" one, and sadly, perhaps only "state located."

I have seen some of our faculty following the understandable promise of higher rewards and greater investment in their areas of interest to other campuses.

I have seen the rising cost of education creating hardships for students and families as they struggle to open that door of promise that is higher education.

I have seen the long-term good of the commonwealth traded for short-term economic and political gain.

In spite of these challenges, the good outweighs the bad. Not, I believe, because of luck or good fortune. Rather because of commitment - exemplified by George Streisinger -- that enables each one of us here to look beyond the naysayers, to look beyond "conventional wisdom," to look beyond the current "bad climate" ... and in so looking to see what potential lies in whatever your own zebrafish - your own passion - may be.


At the start of this year, several groups of administrators and faculty gathered to discuss the coming year. In those discussions we looked seriously and realistically at the challenges and opportunities that lie before us.

I'd like to share a composite of some of the thoughts that came from these gatherings ...

  • In approaching the financial challenges of this biennium, we are in a qualitatively different situation from some of our sister institutions because of the strength and nature of our enrollment; the variety of our financial resources; the strength of our capital campaign; and the prudent fiscal management practices put in place in anticipation of this biennium.
  • We have in our faculty, staff and students all the resources we need in terms of people; thus we have "capacity" to get through this biennium without loss of the quality that is a distinguishing characteristic of the UO.
  • We have some unique characteristics
    • our size
    • our beauty
    • our collaborative nature and sense of welcome
    • and our commitment to transforming lives through knowledge
  • * This year we are welcoming a new class that is smaller by design but is the strongest academically and most diverse ethnically that we ever have enrolled.
  • Our administration makes an effort to be responsive; to protect and enhance the teaching environment; to acquire and manage the resources to finance the vision and mission of the institution.
  • Our faculty is instinctively collaborative, welcoming, and simultaneously searching for and creating a deep sense of shared community.


Earlier today in a ribbon cutting ceremony we opened the UO's new Lillis Business Complex.

The $41-million Lillis Business Complex, more than a year and a half in construction, is already being lauded for its bold design, energy-saving features and state-of-the-art, innovative instructional capabilities.

This beautifully elegant 145,000-square-foot complex is fronted by a four-story atrium that features scores of photovoltaic panels, which will generate a portion of the facility's electricity needs. Carefully positioned classrooms and offices will be used almost year-round without electric lighting.

In the best recycling tradition of Oregon, materials salvaged from the site's previous building were used, along with certified hardwoods and other sustainable resources.

But the Lillis Business Complex's most significant design features are those that will foster the high-quality experiential learning and small-group instruction for which the College is increasingly recognized. Flexible class spaces and small-group team project rooms are a strong departure from the mammoth lecture halls that characterize many other major university business schools. But this is not just a business school. Because of our traditions of collaboration, almost twenty percent of our university classes will now be taught in what, quite literally, is the world's most modern learning facility.

Perhaps just as impressive for Oregon taxpayers is the fact that the Complex has been funded almost entirely with private gifts, the most prominent of which was a $14 million donation from MediaOne Group Chairman Chuck Lillis, who earned a Ph.D. from the UO business college in 1972. He and his wife, Gwen-honored guests with us today--led a fund-raising effort that has generated some $39 million in private support.

This is how we are growing - through that same enthusiasm and dedication that George Streisinger represented, only now through others who care that we "radiate those streams of influence touching every part of the commonwealth."

We aim high ... and we already have brought in more than $200 million in private funding in the silent phase of our next major capital campaign. I will be back to you before the end of the term with the final details on campaign priorities. I thank all of you who have been involved for the work you have done to move it forward. You will see the fruits of your labors.


As you may know, the University of Oregon is a member of the AAU - the Association of American Universities.

Its 63 members are North America's premiere research institutions. For us, our membership in the AAU is a point of pride.

We are in the company of such other institutions as Harvard, the University of Chicago, the University of California at Berkeley, and the University of North Carolina. In the nine states that loosely define the northwest corner of the United States, the University of Washington is the only other member of the AAU.

This places us among the elite universities in the nation. But with that placement comes a challenge - the challenge to live up to the calling of the AAU, its focus on high standards and substantial contribution to knowledge discovery that makes a difference in human lives.

In two days, the University of Oregon will host the annual national meeting of the AAU. As such, we will have a chance to show member presidents and chancellors what makes us both proud and sure of our future.

In the life of any university, but especially one facing the challenges we do today, stress can become a debilitating factor. It can eat away at the edges or strike at the heart of the work we do. It is a corrosive pathogen.

But just as stress and its effects can be contagious, so can enthusiasm, excitement, and the inner spark that moves us to our best.

George Streisinger and the zebrafish are one representation - one model -- for how that spark has been and is still realized the University of Oregon:

Multitudes of "zebrafish programs" thrive at the University of Oregon. I said that George Streisinger's story might be a cultural ritual. But that was a facile answer. It was and is much more!

A story that repeats cultural legends gives you a ritual of respect and is worth recounting. A story that goes beyond repetition and retells and reassembles the vision of a group is a source of renewal and therefore an inspiration to growth. But a story that celebrates new insights and a soaring vision is a story that is transformative for both the individuals involved and the institutions they serve. This is why the zebrafish story ought to be important for us. It may be one way to explain a paradox I have shared with you before: the University simultaneously is one of our society's last surviving medieval institutions and, when it serves its highest function, is one of our society's most revolutionary modern ones.

The Zebrafish story celebrates the transformation that can happen at a university -- a transformation replete with innovative new ideas replicated in the minds and lives of other people -- the dogged persistence in pursuit of an understanding of life - the unselfish mentorship of students and fellow colleagues - and the raw excitement in the joy of discovery.

From the social sciences and the arts, the professional schools to the laboratories, we are achieving that goal proclaimed by President Strong more than 100 years ago.


At the early part of the 20th century - only a few years after those remarks by Frank Strong, a former university president, Woodrow Wilson, had the following thought:

"America," he said, "is not anything if it consists of each of us. It is only something if it consists of all of us."

All of us - Oregonians and beyond - must continue to strive for and practice this sense of "all of us."

For 127 years, the University of Oregon has struggled to play its role, to lead, to offer hope and careers - poets and statesmen - to fulfill its function as "the center of the intellectual life of the state."

This is why you and I are here - this is why we are the University of Oregon.

If you do, in fact, remember this speech as "the zebrafish talk," please remember that the work each one of you do is, in effect, your own zebrafish because you, too, are unlocking the secrets of life. That is what this university does.

A poet unlocks truths about life that may affect us as profoundly as those a molecular biologist discovers. A legal scholar probes the genesis and interpretation of social rules that determine whether people in a civilized society can live peaceably with each other. A social scientist looks for the patterns of human behavior that help us understand how life is experienced and changed in groups and under governments. An art historian helps us to understand life better by seeing how human spiritual quests are reflected in tangible objects or the arrangements of shapes and colors. All of these things can be done with the same intensity, same dedication and purpose, and the same flowering of both expected and unexpected consequences as flowed from George Streisinger's purchase of a zebrafish in a pet store in Portland three decades ago. They may not be as dramatic as the present receipt of $15 million in research support, but they may bear equally on our understanding of the human condition.

All of us, if we are dedicated to our tasks, are just as capable of unlocking the secrets of life and of radiating those special and powerful "streams of influence touching every part of the commonwealth."

Thank you.