A heartfelt farewell to an outstanding educator, scientist, colleague and friend

A couple of months ago I lost a wonderful colleague and friend, Dr. Richard Ira Woodruff (Dick). His professional achievements are listed here. In this brief post, I just want to share a couple of memories that he left me with.

I met him when I was an assistant professor. He was already an Emeritus Professor who was “retired”, but who went to his laboratory every single day; he did not just work in science, he lived it.

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Dr. Dick Woodruff (at right) with Dr. Baldscientist

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His mailbox at the office

He was one of the reasons why I knew that I belonged in my current job. One spring we were having lunch with other faculty members at a table right outside the main science building. A small caterpillar found its way to the table and Dick gently picked it up with a small stick. He then proceeded to talk about its eventual metamorphosis (he was primarily a developmental biologist); another faculty member (Dr. Gio Casotti) talked about its physiology and yours truly contributed with an explanation of some aspects of the synaptic pharmacology of insects. I caught myself thinking “This is my academic home”.

Dick was also a master in all things microscopical (subjects and equipment). I always joked that If someone gave him a toilet paper cardboard tube and two pieces or glass he would be able to build an electron microscope out of it and that was only a slight exaggeration on my part.

I know that I said that his academic achievements could be found at the link above, but I need to say this, one of his papers made the cover of Nature! Ask any scientist what this means, and the first reaction will be of awe, followed by a little jealousy.

He lived his life as he left it, on his own terms. Nothing was halfway with him. In one of our last conversations, when he already knew of the cancer that eventually got him, he told me something like “I wouldn’t like to linger for a long time with this disease, suffering through therapies that will only delay the inevitable. I’d rather be perfectly fine one day and the next…” and then he did the universal cuthroat gesture with tongue stuck out and everything.

You know what? It happened almost exactly like that.

For a way too brief a time, I had the honor of working with him in a planaria related project. He trained a gifted student, Annie Cieniewicz (now a pharmacology PhD student) and together they obtained several pictures of planarians using fluorescent microscopy; here’s one of them:

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I intend to keep learning the technique…

Dick also has a special interest in science and religion. We used to have interesting conversations about that. I once told him that if I ever meet “The Guy Upstairs” I will ask him oh, so many questions! He shared the sentiment enthusiastically. I hope he leaves some questions for me to ask…

I miss you dearly, Dick. Keep learning directly from the source, Godspeed!

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